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  • "Let me give you a hug," I said, arms wide. "It was an absolute pleasure meeting you."

    I enveloped her in a hug, this tiny elderly woman who'd shared our table on the Fast Ferry out of the Vineyard. Rita. Rita and Ro, Ro and Rita. And then she made me cry.

    "Is it just the two of you?" asked a woman with hair thinning, dark and dyed. "Do you mind if we sit here?"

    "Please," I said. "Make yourselves comfortable. Did you have a nice visit?"

    The women were older leaning toward old with papery skin, spotted with age. They wore rings of lip liner without the filler and sensible shoes. They seemed sweet, so I started talking, asking questions, getting to know our tablemates. My friend was game, so were the women, and we quickly moved from the weather to life.

    We talked of travel, of home, of helping strangers find their way. I offered them quinoa salad. They declined and offered cookies instead.

    We talked of the island, the weekend, the houses where we stayed, the friends and family we saw. One woman's son lived on the island. Her granddaughter had graduated and come for the summer; she didn't know what would happen come September. We'd come to stay with a friend we met in Kenya, a doctor who lived in my neighborhood when she stayed put. (Hardly ever.)

    At some point, Rita and I introduced ourselves and shook hands. Sometime later, our friends joined the act and in the middle of it all, we formed a friendship with Rita and Ro.

    They met in 1978 at the hospice where they both worked. Their husbands and children got along. Their friendship lasted. Three and a half decades later, life had had some ups and downs, and my friend asked Ro for one of the happy times. The sadness on her face lifted a bit as she talked of her husband, her family and friends.

    Rita smiled as she told of collecting shells and wintering on Florida's Sanibel Island. Her husband used to collect driftwood and decorate it with her shells. He made shadow boxes; they still hang in their - in her - Connecticut home.

    Rita seemed a little off kilter, so I didn't ask her to move. I waited patiently through a growing desperation and ran to the bathroom only after we docked, and it was there, in the line, that I pulled Rita into my arms for a hug.

    "Let's make a deal," she said. "Let's exchange prayers."

    "OK," I said, my eyes searching hers.

    "I will pray for you and you pray for me."

    Tears and fear sprang to my eyes as I nodded, unwilling to trust my voice.

    "You have MS,"'she continued. "And I have leukemia."

    "It's a deal," I said, my voice shaking a little as I shook Rita's hand and ran from the office, tears streaking my cheeks.

    I lifted a prayer for Rita, for Ro, for the granddaughter in the Vineyard who didn't have plans after September and for Rita again. In the shuttle, I told my friend and she cried, too.

    "I think it must say something for humanity that this makes me so sad."

    I agreed, and I had a feeling that I would pray for Rita (and Ro) until the end of my days.
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