Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 836
The chain of love to which the title of this story alludes represents the closeness of the Mustian family, three generations of whom live in Afton, North Carolina, on the Virginia-North Carolina border. Papa, a widower, has just celebrated his birthday with appropriate family festivities. The next day he falls sick, and Dr. Sledge decides that he must be hospitalized in Raleigh, an hour’s drive away. As is customary among rural southern families, all the kinfolk go to Raleigh for Papa’s hospitalization.
Mama, Rosacoke’s mother and the widow of Papa’s son, cannot stay in Raleigh, as would be expected of her, because she is in charge of Children’s Day at the Baptist Church. She must see that responsibility through. She accompanies Papa to Raleigh, bringing with her half a gallon of custard she has made to leave with him. When Papa enters the hospital, he is offered a large corner room for twelve dollars a day, but he decides there is “no use trying the good will of the Blue Cross Hospital Insurance so he took a ten-dollar room standing empty across the hall.”
Mama promises to come back on Sunday, after the Children’s Day festivities are over, and stay with him until he can go home. Meanwhile, she leaves her daughter Rosacoke and her son Rato to look after Papa for several days.
Rosacoke often goes into the still vacant corner room across the hall to look out the window during her vigil with Papa. From the room she can see a statue of Jesus, head down, hands spread by his sides. The statue is bare-chested and a cloth is draped over its right shoulder. Rosacoke cannot see its face, but she remembers it as a kindly countenance from having seen it when they came into the hospital.
After two days, someone checks into the corner room, a man, later revealed to be Mr. Ledwell. He looks healthy and is able to walk in under his own power, accompanied by his wife and son. Meanwhile, Papa can find out little from the doctors about his own condition, and he tells them little except that he wants to die at home.
The first day Mr. Ledwell is in his room, Rosacoke mistakes his son, who is sitting in the hall, for her boyfriend, Wesley Beavers, and embarrasses herself by saying something inane to the youth, who reacts gracefully. Before long, Rosacoke learns from Snowball, a hospital attendant, that Mr. Ledwell is to undergo surgery for lung cancer and that one lung will have to be removed. The prognosis is bleak.
The next morning, Mr. Ledwell is operated on and at first seems to be doing quite well, but after a few hours, his condition deteriorates and his doctor is called in the middle of the night to come in and use emergency measures to save his life. Mr. Ledwell is resuscitated, and Rosacoke decides that she should go in to visit him and his family and to offer to help them if she can.
She does not want to go in without taking anything for Mr. Ledwell, so she sends a card to her mother asking her to bring some altheas with her when she comes on Sunday to visit Papa. Rosacoke is nervous about visiting Mr. Ledwell but feels it is her duty to do so because he has lived in Raleigh only six months, having moved there from Baltimore, and he has no friends to visit him.
On Sunday, Mama brings the altheas, not knowing what Rosacoke intends to do with them. The whole family has come to spend the day with Papa, whose room, in sharp contrast to Mr. Ledwell’s, is filled with people. When things have settled down, Rosacoke puts on some makeup, wraps the altheas, ties a note to them, and knocks softly on the high oak door of Mr. Ledwell’s room. There is no answer. She pushes the door gently. The room is dark except for some candies she sees burning. When her eyes adjust, Rosacoke sees that Mr. Ledwell’s son is standing at the head of the bed. An old man in black, presumably a priest, is conducting some sort of rite that is foreign to Rosacoke. She suspects that she should not be there, but as she turns to leave, the son sees her and almost smiles. She watches as the dying man is anointed, not knowing the meaning of Extreme Unction but realizing what this sort of service must mean. She leaves her flowers on the chair and goes back to Papa’s room to say goodbye before her brother Milo comes by to pick her up and take her home to Afton.
Before Rosacoke goes home, Rato reveals that Mr. Ledwell has died and suggests that they leave the door open a crack so that they can see his body being removed. Rosacoke absolutely rejects this suggestion, and Rato leaves the room, slamming the door behind him.