Two weeks passed with Alice growing rapidly weaker. The disease ravaged her body until the sheet covering her barely rose above the mattress. The hospice at first provided nursing care during the day; then nurses stayed on duty around the clock. Torri spent part of every day at her friend’s bedside, taking Leann and Lyle to visit two or three times a week. The children’s faces became somber the minute they entered the house and remained so for hours after they left, but they insisted on visiting Aunt Alice.
     Jason became thinner and his face more careworn as his wife began to leave this life. When the doctor from the hospice warned him that Alice had days rather than months, Jason took a leave of absence from the department. He left Alice only to coach his team, which she insisted he continue.
     June 25 dawned sunny and warm. A gentle breeze stirred the leaves in the trees as Torri picked ripe and nearly ripe tomatoes with Lyle helping by carrying the basket. Leann played with her Barbies under a weeping willow at the edge of the garden. The early morning, drowsy and peaceful, signaled the start of another Oklahoma summer.
     “Torri!” Bess called from the garden entrance, hurrying toward her granddaughter who stood shadowing her eyes with her hand.
     “What’s wrong, Gram?” Torri asked when her grandmother reached her.
     “I’ll finish the tomatoes. Jason called and asked for you and the children to come immediately.”
     Torri placed her hand over her mouth, fighting darkness and suffocation. Forcing herself to take a deep breath, she asked, “Is it ... time?”
     At Bess’ nod, Torri called Leann to meet her at the end of the garden, took Lyle’s hand, and nearly ran toward the house, knowing she needed to change from her shorts and tee shirt before leaving. When they joined Leann, Torri grabbed one of her hands without pausing.
     “We need to hurry, kids. Uncle Jason called. Remember we’ve talked about how we would have to say goodbye to Aunt Alice before long? Well, it’s time, sweeties.”
     The silent children hurried with her, the tightening grasp on their mother’s hands their only response. When they climbed the steps to the porch, Torri stopped. “Please wait here. I need to change my clothes. You look fine, but I don’t. I’ll only be a minute.”
     Fifteen minutes later they pulled into Jason’s and Alice’s drive where several cars were already parked. They rushed into the house where Jason’s mother, tears pooling in her eyes, escorted them to the bedroom. Alice lay in the bed surrounded by her parents on the side of the bed closest to the door and Jason on the other side with Pastor John standing behind him. A nurse waited in the shadows.
     When she saw Torri, a ghost of a smile flitted across Alice’s face. “Mom, Dad, would you ... mind if I ... talked with Torri ... her children?” the whispering voice from the bed, so soft, so weak, asked.
     When Mr. Rogers led his wife, who sobbed into a hanky, from the room, Torri and her children moved to the vacant side of the bed. Alice feebly reached out her hand, which Torri clasped in both of hers. “I had to ... see you ... one more time.”
     “Please, don’t exert yourself. I know what you want to say. I love you, too, and I will miss you so very much.”
     “Yes ... one more ... thing.”
     “Anything I can.”
     “Continue to be ... Jason’s ... friend ... special friend ... help him continue living ... I made ... him promise.”
     “Of course. You didn’t need to ask. Jason will always be a part of our family.”
     “Good. Where ... children?”
     Dropping Alice’s hand, Torri brought both Leann and Lyle to stand in front of her, placing Lyle’s hand in Alice’s.
     “Why does Aunt Alice want to hold my hand?” Lyle asked.
     “That’s the only way she can hug now, Lyle,” Jason answered from across the bed, giving both children an encouraging, if wan, grin.
     “Why don’t you tell Aunt Alice about your last game, sweetie?” Torri kept her hand on Lyle’s shoulder as she drew Leann into the circle
of her other arm.
     Lyle regaled Alice with a hit by hit, out by out replay of the game two nights earlier, including his home run and game saving catch. Finally looking up at his mother, he asked, “Why does Aunt Alice have to hug so long?”
     Struggling to hide a startled laugh behind a cough, Torri glanced toward Alice whose face also showed a tendency to smile. A strange choking came from the other side of the bed as Jason rubbed his free hand across his mouth. Alice answered his question. “I ... won’t be ... able to hug ... you ... again for ... a long time.”
     “Oh,” the young boy nodded as he spoke, “that’s okay then. You want to hear about last Friday’s game?”
     “Maybe we should allow Leann to get her ‘hug’ now.” Torri smoothed his hair back from his forehead.
     “Why don’t you come over here by me,” Jason suggested to Lyle as Leann moved closer to where Alice’s hand, with an IV attached and a bandage covering it, now lay on the sheet.
      “Aunt Alice has a hurt hand, Mommie. I don’t want to hold her hurt.” Leann hid her hands behind her back; then taking Torri’s hand, she placed it on Alice’s, holding her mother’s other hand in hers. “There, you hold Aunt Alice’s hand, and I’ll hold yours.”
     “My pretty ... Leann ... I will miss you ... and your ... brother.” Alice forced the words through her parched lips. “Remember ... I love you.” Looking at Jason, then at Lyle, she told the boy, “You make ... Uncle ... Jason keep ... coaching, okay?”
     After swallowing around the lump forming in his throat, Lyle nodded, sliding his hand into Jason’s and leaning against his side. “I don’t want you to leave us, Aunt Alice.” Tears filled Leann’s eyes as she squeezed her mother’s hand.
     “I know, but God make me ... all better if I ... go to heaven.”
     “Oh. I want you to be all better, but ... ” After she laid her face against Alice’s and Torri’s joined hands, Leann whispered, “I love you, Aunt Alice.”
     The quiet voice that didn’t seem to belong to Lyle whispered, “I love you, too. Would you tell, uh, Jesus I love him, too, I mean, when you see him?”
     “Of course ... aah!” Quickly the nurse efficiently moved Torri and Leann to one side, bending over the dying woman while Jason gently pushed Lyle toward his mother.
     “Goodbye, my ‘bestest’ friend,” Torri whispered before she removed her children from the room. Alice’s parents each briefly touched her shoulder as they returned to their daughter’s side.
     A few minutes later, Jason with Pastor John beside him entered the living room gravely to announce, “She’s gone.”
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