Editor’s note: “Angels” is an excerpt from a short story about family caregiving that I’m writing for my book, Rest. I began it this fall in Eson Kim‘s Fiction I class at GrubStreet Creative Writing Center in Boston. In this excerpt, we meet Arnold Davies, who is just waking up from surgery, and his wife Mim. — MAB
On a Friday afternoon just before Christmas, Arnold wakes up from cardiac bypass surgery, gasping, in one of those high-tech hospital cribs with pushbutton-this and bellringing-that.
Eyes fluttering open, he’s on the dim edge of freaking out, which God knows is a perfectly reasonable response to waking up on a ventilator with a massive bandage on his chest, a tube down his nose, an IV in his hand, and a raging thirst. The first thing Arnold tries to do is swallow – a gulp of panic – but he can’t do it because of the ventilator tube in his throat.
Aagh, he thinks. Aagh! His mind generates the kind of dazed roar that precedes distinct thought. He’s in pain and he can’t swallow, can’t call out for help, and can’t even turn his head. There’s a whole lot of beeping going on. In his head he thinks something, perhaps Oh God, or Mim? Mim?
“Mr. Davies, I see you’re awake.” A woman with an angelic cloud of hair has appeared at his bedside. “You’re in cardiac surgery intensive care and you are doing just fine,” the angel says. “Your surgery is over.” Arnold blinks. The angel smiles a practiced smile.
“Mr. Davies, can you squeeze my hand?” asks the angel. “Good. Wiggle your toes? Terrific. Ok now, I want you to follow my finger with your eyes. Follow it back again. Good. Now, are you in pain? Nod if you’re in pain.”
Arnold nods. His left hand quivers and tries to raise itself, but it’s tied down. Tears escape Arnold’s eyes and slide down his cheeks; he’s mortified. His nose drips.
“We’re going to give you something for pain,” the angel announces. There’s an indeterminate flurry of activity. Someone wipes his cheeks and blots the drips coming out of his nose. “You’re on a ventilator,” the angel says, “so you won’t be able to talk. You’re doing just fine.” Seconds later, he feels blessed relief steal past his ribs into the core of his being. He slips back into the deep.
In the ICU, time passes. Techs, nurses, docs, visitors, kitchen staff swirl down the hall past Arnold’s room. From time to time, someone disturbs his sleep.
Then: “Arnold, honey, it’s Mim.” Arnold stares up at her face, feels his wife’s hand stroking his hand. Briefly, her hair touches his neck.
Mim, he thinks. Tears slide out of his lids. Mim, I need a drink, he thinks. Her fingers wipe the tears down over the pale surface of his face. Her hand strokes the hair on his head, slides around to touch his cheek.
“Wounds heal from the inside out,” Dr. Binh said to Mim in the waiting room after surgery. “Absolutely at this moment, and at every moment since I made the first incision, your husband’s brain and tissues have been directing billions of cellular procedures aimed at stopping the bleeding and repairing the damage. These cellular repair procedures are programmed in us by DNA. All we need to do is breathe and wait, or, in Arnold’s case, allow the ventilator to breathe. Just be in the moment.”
In this moment, Arnold weighs the pressure of his body on the bed; Mim’s hand on his; electronic sounds; the wedged feeling in his throat. A slow-moving awareness begins to reduce the roar in his head.
New angel: a man with dark hands and fingers, a Caribbean voice.
“Arnold,” the nurse tells him, “we’re going to remove your ventilator tube and give you a try at breathing on your own.” It feels like somebody’s pulling a hose out of his throat, fast.
“Breathe deeply, Arnold,” the nurse says. “That’s right, breathe in and then breathe out again.” The machines change their pattern of beeps. Arnold breathes. His throat burns when he swallows but it feels so good to be able to swallow, even though the thirst consumes him. Someone feeds him ice chips; a blessing.
Now that the breathing tube is out, Mim has been allowed back into Arnold’s room. She sets her carryall bag on the floor and sighs down into the chair, twitching her thin yellow infection control gown over her clothes. Her hands smell of disinfectant gel.
Dear Arnold, Mim thinks, Do you remember that song on the radio when we met? She remembers their wedding ceremony at her grandmother’s church in Chicago, her triumphant smile as she processed down the aisle towards Arnold on a gust of bridal pride.
“Can I have some water?” Arnold has wakened.
“Let’s sit you up,” says the nurse. “Hold this to your chest.” He hands Arnold a heart-shaped cough pillow and presses buttons. The head of the bed raises a tad. Oh, God! Something clotted surges downward in Arnold’s chest.
“You’re ok, Arnold,” the nurse tells him. “It’s ok, your chest tube will get rid of the fluids. You’re safe.” He turns to Mim: “You can give him ice chips, but just a couple at a time.”
“Of course,” says Mim. She finds herself breathing in unison with Arnold, as if they’re engaged in some joint venture that requires the highest levels of corporeal coordination. Hearts and lungs have never felt more precious, nor angels’ voices nearer.
— Mary Ann Barton
Image credits (from the top): Chanson de la plus haute tour (II) by Airair, 2007, via Wikimedia. * Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right by Leonardo da Vinci, Italian, 1508-1512, via Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1951 (51.90). * Head of a Negro by Peter Paul Rubens, Flemish, ca. 1620, via Wikimedia. * Woman Embroidering by August Macke, German, 1909, via Wikimedia.