An Excerpt from “The Home at Craigmillnar”

Joyce Carol Oates

Early shift is 6:30 a.m., which was when I arrived at the elder care facility at Eau Claire where I have been an orderly for two years. Maybe thirty minutes after that, the elderly nun’s body was discovered in her bed.

In fact, I’d gotten to work a few minutes before my shift began as I usually do, in nasty weather especially (as it was that morning: pelting-rain, dark-as-night, first week of November), out of a concern for being late. For jobs are not easy to come by, in our economy. And in Oybwa County, Wisconsin, where I have lived all my life except for three-and-a-half years “deployed” in Iraq as a medical worker. I am a conscientious orderly, with a very good reputation at the facility.

If I am interviewed by the county medical examiner, I will explain to him: it is a wrongly phrased description—body discovered in bed. For when I entered Sister Mary Alphonsus’s room in Unit D, my assumption was that the Sister was alive, and the “discovery” was that she was not alive, or in any case not obviously alive. I did not “discover” a “body” in the bed but was shocked to see Sister Mary Alphonsus unmoving, and unbreathing, with a gauzy fabric like muslin wrapped around her head (like a nun’s veil or wimple), so that her face was obscured.

She was unresponsive to me. Yet even at this, I did not “discover” a “body”—it was natural for me to believe that the elderly woman might have lapsed into a coma.

(Not that death is so unusual in an elder care facility like ours—hardly! All of our patients die, eventually; Unit E is our hospice wing. But the death of the resident in room 22 of Unit D was not expected so soon.)

In my Iraqi deployment my instinct for things not-right became very sharp. Out of ordinary situations there might arise—suddenly—as in a nightmare—an explosion that could tear off your legs. You had to be alert—and yet, how is it possible to be always alert?—it is not possible. And so, you develop a kind of sixth sense.

And so as soon as I entered the room after knocking—twice—at the door—I saw that things were not-right, and the hairs at the nape of my neck stirred. There was no light in the room and Sister Mary Alphonsus was still in bed—this was not-right. For Sister Mary Alphonsus was always “up” before the early shift arrived, as if pride demanded it. The nun was one of those older persons in our care who does not accept that she is elderly, and will turn nasty with you if you behave as if she is.

Sister?—in a lowered and respectful voice I spoke. Always I addressed Sister Mary Alphonsus with courtesy, for the old woman was easily offended by a wrong intonation of voice. Like a bloodhound keen for scent, this one was sharp to detect mockery where there was none.

Not a good sign, Sister Mary Alphonsus wasn’t yet awake. Very strange, the light above her bed hadn’t been switched on.

And a strong smell of urine in the room. Unexpected, in Sister Mary Alphonsus’s room, whose occupant wasn’t incontinent, and who was usually fussy about cleanliness.

When I switched on the overhead light, the fluorescent bulb flickered like an eye blinking open.

The shock of it, then: seeing the elderly nun in her bed only a few feet away, on her back, not moving; and wrapped around her head some sort of gauzy white fabric like a curtain, so her face was hidden. And inside the gauze the Sister’s eyes shut, or open—you could not tell.

Died in her sleep. Cardiac arrest.

By the time of our senior consulting physician’s arrival at the facility, at about 9 a.m., it was clear that elderly Sister Mary Alphonsus was not likely in a coma, but had died. The strip of gauzy material had been unwound from the woman’s head by the first nurse who’d arrived at the bedside, and dropped heedlessly onto the floor.

I am not a “medic”: I am an “orderly.” In all medical matters orderlies defer to the medical staff. I had not tried to revive Sister Mary Alphonsus nor even to unwind the cloth from her head, which did not appear to be tightly tied. So far as I knew, the patient might have been alive following a stroke or heart attack.

A legal pronouncement of death can be made only by a physician.

In a senior care facility like ours, Death strikes suddenly, often overnight. Often, within an hour. Cardiac arrest, pulmonary embolism, stroke—like strikes of lightning. If an elderly resident becomes seriously ill, with pneumonia for instance, or is stricken with cancer, he or she is transported to Eau Claire General for specialized treatment; but most of our residents have long-standing medical conditions, of which the most insidious is old age.

In the matter of Death, when a living body becomes “dead,” there are legal procedures that must be followed. Our senior consultant was required to sign the death certificate and the county medical examiner’s office had to be informed. If the deceased had listed next-of-kin in her file, this individual or individuals would now be notified and arrangements would be made for removal of the body from the facility and for burial.

About this, I knew nothing, and would know very little—though I would learn, inadvertently, that the elderly nun had died intestate.

(Intestate: a fancy word for dying without a will! A kind of nasty ring to this word intestate, makes you think of testicles, worse yet in this facility of old men—testicular cancer. Not a welcome thought.)

Next time I came into contact with Sister Mary Alphonsus was after Dr. Bromwalder’s examination, when the body was covered with a white sheet. With another orderly, I lifted it onto a gurney to push quickly and as unobtrusively as possible to the facility’s morgue in the basement—Man, she was heavy for an old lady!

I couldn’t resist peeking under the sheet: Sister Mary Alphonsus’s face was mottled red, a coarse-skinned face you could not have identified as female. The thin-lashed eyes were shut and the mouth that had resembled a pike’s wide mouth in life hung loosely open.

She anybody you knew, Francis?

No.

There’d never been any doubt in Dr. Bromwalder’s mind that the eighty-four-year-old woman had died of cardiac arrest, in her sleep. She’d been a cardiac patient: she’d had a chronic condition. It had not seemed to be life-threatening, but all signs suggested heart failure and not a stroke; under these circumstances, an autopsy was not warranted.

The gauze wrapped around the nun’s head was certainly too flimsy to have caused suffocation. It had seemed to the senior consulting physician but mildly mysterious—“eccentric”—but many “eccentric” things happen in elder care facilities, among patients who may be mentally as well as physically ill, and so not much was made of the gauzy fabric except by some of the nursing staff of Unit D, who were puzzled, curious—Why would the woman do such a thing? What does it mean?

The fabric was believed to have been taken out of the Sister’s belongings, some of which were kept in a small bureau in the room. It did appear to be a curtain, or part of a curtain—white, dotted-swiss, somewhat soiled, a cheap material.

Maybe she was confused, in her sleep. Wrapped a curtain around her head thinking it was a nun’s wimple!

Maybe she knew she was dying. It was some kind of religious thing, like after a Catholic confesses her sins to a priest—penance?

Among the staff of Unit D, Sister Mary Alphonsus had not been a favorite. To her face the nurses called her Sister, behind her back the old nun.

Or, the old nun who’d run that terrible orphanage at Craigmillnar.

Read the rest of this story by downloading the free Amazon digest version of The Kenyon Review here.

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