Time and the Deep Winters

Promises made in high school are like leaves in an autumn wind, soon flung to the distance and forgotten in an evolution of seasons that creates new priorities.

Gone the quickest, tumbling toward the horizon, are those graduation-day vows that swear eternal love and friendship, and promise that a link formed in pubescence will last forever.

Youthful passions cool quickly, friends pursue widely different goals, and gaps between them widen into chasms.

Old promises, like old leaves, litter a landscape beyond memory, and the winds of change rarely blow them back into our lives.

There are, of course, exceptions, and I sing today of a friendship so sweet and rare it assumes a life of its own, and places in perspective the caprice of unions forged with lesser ties.

This is a song of Bette and Michael.

She couldn't see him, and he couldn't love her, but their friendship based on a promise made in high school by a gay man to a blind woman endured until the day he died.

Bette Ozburn, now 32, has not had an easy life. Cancer blinded her in infancy, a heart seizure almost killed her and a mental breakdown plunged her into a darkness of the soul even deeper than the darkness she faces every day of her life.

But there has always been Michael at her side during the most difficult times, to hold her hand, to take her arm, to talk with her, and sometimes just to be next to her in silence.

He taught her to laugh, and he taught her to be strong.

His last name was Martinez. We weren't related, though I would have liked that. Michael was the kind of guy who put money in the parking meters of strangers and rushed from Glendale to San Francisco on his own after the earthquake to help save lives.

"He had a strength that never faltered," Bette said the other day in her tiny Burbank apartment. She is a small, pretty woman with a smile that flickers like sunlight through the trees.

"He was gruff on the outside, but gentle on the inside. I knew when I was with Michael, nothing would ever happen to me."

They met as sophomores at Hoover High School in Glendale. At first, she rejected his friendship. Bette was shy and frightened and didn't want pity. But Michael persisted. Pity wasn't what he was offering.

"He was different," she said. "Most people shy away from the blind. Michael would come to the school's blind center. He encouraged me and never treated me as someone different. He believed anything was possible in life, despite disabilities."

Bette's feeling toward Michael blossomed into love, but he told her somehow--she can't remember how--that physical love between them was simply not possible. Michael was gay.

This was a friendship not only beyond sight, but beyond the usual passions that bind men and women. This was different. This was love in the purest form it ever takes.

The promise of friendship was made on graduation day. Bette was going away to college. It was her first time away from home.

"I remember we were signing yearbooks when it suddenly hit me," she said. "I ran from the room crying. I was terrified."

Michael followed and put his arms around her. She was afraid that after graduation, he would be gone from her life forever.

"He said to me," Bette remembered, " 'I'll never not be your friend. I promise you that. I'll always be there when you need me.' And he always was."

He was there when Bette's fiance died and he was there through the emotional turmoil that followed. He was there for her heart attack, coaxing her back, and he was there as a voice on the telephone when her nights were unbearable.

"He would call from a construction job in Texas," she said, "or an oil rigging job in Louisiana. We'd talk two or three times a day. He brought me strength."

He brought her memories as well, of walks through the park, of concerts under the stars, of Diana Ross singing "Reach Out and Touch," and walking through the audience, and touching them.

Then as quickly as he entered her life, Michael left it.

He died last month in an automobile accident near Ontario. Bette endures the grief with as much equanimity as she can. The tears have all been cried. She busies herself studying psychology in school and sees a therapist regularly.

"The friend who was always there isn't there anymore," she said, "but our friendship will always have meaning. Michael gave me something special."

And he defined for us all the context of a promise that survived time and the deep winters.

He kept it until the very end.

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