Heaven's Secret Handshake

When I walked into Cookie's room this morning she appeared to be sleeping. I crept up beside her bed, stared down at her and for a minute, didn't know if she was even breathing.

I couldn't find her nurse. I asked the social worker if the doctor had seen her. "I think she has a UTI," she said. "They upped her sleeping medication."

I read the chart. The doctor said she was agitated. It didn't say they'd upped her Ambien, but the proof was lying in bed down the hallway, sedated. Nowhere in the doctor's note did it mention the numbness in the left side of her face or the way her mouth now droops into an unnatural curve.

Cookie was agitated and the doctor healed her of that annoying little symptom.

When I returned to Cookie's room later, I tried to rouse her. She opened her eyes, looked at me and then, with a chilling familiarity, looked past me. She was watching things I could not see- things that flew past the end of her bed...She was looking into a corner, studying a spot above the T.V.

She was doing the exact same thing Dad did before he died.

"What do you see, honey?" I whispered.

It took her a long time to get back to me, to form the syllables that sounded like words. "Was I...I was...but it was just the way it used to be...I see it all."

"What do you see, Cookie?"

"I see everything, just as it was, all of it! Is...was it a dream?"

"You saw your life?"

"The children...they were little. I have to go back."

Cookie looked torn for a moment, then turned her focus onto me. She was smiling. "You are the best friend I have ever had but if I have to go, if I leave, will you..."

"Understand? Yes, Cookie, of course."

She brought her hand up to touch the numb side of her face. She explored the edge of her mouth, held her left hand out in front of her and stared at it.

"It's not right," she said. "I can't feel..."

She took my hand in hers, pulled my fingers to her lips and kissed them. "I have never had a friend like you. I think you know how it is."

I nodded. I was trying very hard not to cry because I was thinking, "No, not you, too!" Which, I knew, was selfish.

Cookie's aide loves her. I walked up to her as she stood in the hallway pressing buttons on her wall chart, entering tasks she'd completed with her patients.

"How's Cookie seem to you?" I asked.

Mary shook her head. Her real name is not Mary, but that's what Cookie calls her. "I'm surprised she's still here," she said. "I don't know how she's hanging on."

Mary is a little woman, tough, but every day she sits by Cookie's bed, coaxing her to take a bite of her lunch. She drinks her coffee and leans in with a fork. "Come on baby," she says. "Just one bite."

"She's slipping away from us," Mary says.

I walk back into the social worker's office. She is on her way to lunch but something in my face stops her. "What's wrong?"

She is soft and kind and young. I think in the right place, with support, she could do many good deeds...but no one supports that kind of effort these days. They want the paperwork that leads to reimbursement.

"Cookie just said goodbye to me," I tell her.

The social worker's eyes well up. She hitches her bag higher on her shoulder. "Oh, no! Not today! Don't do this to me today! I'm already emotional!" She leaves the room, walks halfway down the hall and comes back.

"Are you okay?" she asks.

I nod yes, but I am thinking no.

Marti arrives to visit a friend before we have lunch. She takes a look at my face and says "You look like you just lost your very best friend! I've never seen you look this sad!"

I think, you're right. Because while it may not be today or even this week, Cookie is leaving.

I know it's stupid, but I wondered if Dad would be along to help ease the transition. After all, she has met him. He would be the logical link in the chain that stretches between Cookie, me and eternity.

He could teach her the secret Heaven handshake.

And maybe that way, with them together, I wouldn't miss them both so much.

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