(Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals).
Who said he was dead? I’m trying to remember who said he was dead.
I think it was Amy, the LPN.
She was the one who found him. He hadn’t been pronounced yet.
It was right in the middle of dinner, too, and the other nurse aides were in the feed room.
I walked in, pointed to Elise, the new aide with the purple hair, and said, “I need you.”
“What for?” Samantha, the other aide, asked.
“To turn and repo?”
“No. he passed.”
“Oh. Wow. Okay.”
Elise put the spoon down and joined me in the hall.
“Have you ever done postmortem care before?” I said.
“No, I haven’t,” she said.
“Good. It will be a learning experience.”
The room was empty and the lights were off.
Stanley lay on the bed, grey and unmoving.
Even in death, he was handsome. He had the good looks of an actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood: big brown eyes, a wide smile, and a well-defined jawline.
When he was alive, I asked him what he did for a living.
“I worked for myself. I worked for myself. I worked for myself,” he said.
“But what did you do?”
“I bought and sold cigarettes. I was the middle man.”
It sounded awfully boring to me and a waste of a good face.
Judging by his voice, I thought he smoked plenty of them himself. It was scratchy, rough, deep. I could imitate it perfectly.
I liked him. I liked his family, too, even though they were a handful.
His daughter, flush and tearful, touched my arm and said, “I’ve never been through this before. What do I do? What do I do? Please tell me what to do.”
I had no idea what to say.
Thankfully, another aide took the lead. Mainly, he told her to let her dad be. I could tell it didn’t go over well but at least it was something. He did better than me.
She couldn’t accept he was dying. But neither could he.
One night I came in the room and said, “Stanley, what do you need?”
“A miracle,” he said.
And now, there he was on the bed, not breathing.
Amy had already closed his eyes, but his mouth was still wide open.
I closed it.
I closed it.
I closed it and held it shut for a few seconds, but it opened again.
“Think of the best bed bath you’ve given,” I said. “This one should be better.”
I filled the basin with hot water, soap, and wash rags, and handed one to her.
“Wash his face and hands,” I said.
I expected her to be timid, but she wasn’t.
She went for it and cleaned him like she would have done if he were alive.
I was both impressed and unnerved by how casually she went about it.
Shouldn’t she have been a little tentative? It was her first time after all.
Maybe she was running on adrenaline. Maybe I was too.
I started on the body.
He had been a thin guy and hadn’t eaten much for a week or so. He was all bones at this point.
His scrotum worried me as it looked almost skinned. It was as red as a tomato and seemed like it was about to burst open.
I imagined the scrotum of a dead man breaking down in my hands and blood running all over the bed.
His penis wasn’t much better off. He never could leave the damn thing alone. He pulled his catheter until it stretched and ripped the slit into a hole, red and sore.
His bottom had caved in. The skin still covered it, thank God, but it was loose, flimsy, like a curtain.
The cream was caked on. I scrubbed and scrubbed, trying to get all of it off, but I was worried that the skin would come with it.
His arms and legs flopped about as we turned him. We tried to do it gently. We tried to move him as softly as we could.
His head rolled toward me and his left eye popped open.
Elise cringed, finally.
I smiled and closed the eye.
I closed the mouth again.
In came the DON, the Director of Nursing.
I had almost forgotten. He hadn’t been officially declared dead yet.
She felt for his pulse.
“Time of death, eighteen thirty,” she said before heading for the door.
“What about the catheter?” I said.
She was filling in for the normal RN and hadn’t taken care of him before. She didn’t know he had one.
She got the syringe, drained the yellowish fluid, and slid the tube out.
“Thanks for letting me know,” she said and left.
I folded his hands over his chest and tried to make it look like he was sleeping, as they say.
Sunlight beamed in from the window on the back of his head. I tilted his face toward it. He looked almost angelic.
Elise took her gloves off. She thought we were finished.
“Not yet,” I said.
“What’s left to do?” she said.
“Clean the room.”
We collected the empty cups on the table, threw out the mouth care swabs, removed the lotions, tissues, gloves, etc. We got rid of all the garbage.
Anything that seemed out of place we put in the closet so it would be out of the way.
I centered the lamp on the bedside stand and turned a picture frame away from the wall and toward him.
Everything looked arranged, considered, attended to.
“Now we’re done,” I said to Elise.
The sunbeam still fell on his face. Mouth still agape.
The family came in crying about an hour later. They collected the few things still left, a collapsible chair, a suitcase with some clothing.
And that was it.
The daughter who had pleaded, “What should I do?” thanked me for all I did. The wife was too distraught to say anything.
The man from the funeral home said he’d be there in fifteen minutes but it took him nearly an hour and a half.
He was grateful for the help.
“I’m used to doing this by myself,” he said.
I lifted Stanley, he put the board under, and we transferred the body into the bag on the stretcher.
The nurse had told all the residents to leave the hall.
To protect them from what? Death? So silly.
I don’t know why but I went back to the room. The emptiness felt oppressive. One would think it’d be better without the dead body but somehow it was worse.
At least he was at peace.
As I stood there next to his bed, my mind returned to that moment:
His call light was on.
I entered the room.
He shifted and grimaced and pointed his cloudy brown eyes in my direction but couldn’t see me.
He raised his hand and touched my chest.
“Stanley, what do you need?”
“A miracle,” he said.
K. Uwe Dunn is a certified nurse aide who lives in central Pennsylvania with his wife, Isabella. He has a bachelor’s degree in English literature, a master’s in painting, and is fluent in the German language. His work has been featured in Kestrel: A Journal of Literature and Art and The Tishman Review, and is forthcoming in Route 7 Review, HeartWood Literary Magazine, Echo: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, and more.