Notebook: Mim and Arnold

A steam train transporting its passengers... by Albert Lloyd Tarter, English, 194-, via Wellcome Trust.

A steam train transporting its passengers… by Albert Lloyd Tarter, English, 194-, via Wellcome Trust.

We’ve only been sleeping in separate beds since last Thursday, but already I feel as though my body has detached itself from our marriage like an unhitched railway car left stranded on the track, as the rest of the train clatters away to the next station.

“Wait, wait!” I want to say, hoisting my bag out of the rack and stumbling down the corridor as my husband disappears. Our landscapes aren’t the same anymore. His body isn’t the same anymore. Plus, he’s lost pieces of his body. Oh, just little segments of the arteries that supply oxygen to the heart muscle, just the bits they cut out in the surgical procedure familiarly known as “cabbage.” Coronary Artery Bypass Graft, the CABG without the second b and the second and the e, so something devised by medical researchers, not chefs.

Come to think of it, my family loves cabbage. Stuffed, with homemade tomato sauce, or New England boiled dinner, the cabbage wedge sliding onto the plate next to the beets and potatoes and corned beef, with two kinds of mustard on the table.

“You want yellow or brown, dear?” I always ask Arnold, my spoon poised to dip up a glob of blazing turmeric or briny brown mustard grains.

“Both, Mim,” he always says, “one on each side of the beef. Did you remember the Irish Red Ale?”

But back to my problem with separate beds. Technically, I sleep better alone than I do next to Arnold, what with his snoring that I’ve taught myself, over the years as we’ve grown older, to accept and let float away into the night. If I practice my alternate-nostril-breathing faithfully, I know I’ll sink down into slumber. And It’s not as if we sleep cuddled up; I don’t like anybody touching me while I’m trying to sleep.

The Bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1893, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Bed by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, French, 1893, via Wikimedia Commons.

No, it’s just that when we live under the same blanket every night, my body has a chance to meld with my husband’s in a way that just doesn’t happen in daylight. Maybe I need the exchange of molecules that happens when his exhaled breath travels in through my nostrils, and my breath wafts over into his.

“Wear consistent with age and use.” That’s how dealers describe antique furniture in catalogs and web sites. Arnold used to look as if he were wearing his years well, despite the weight problem and the intermittently controlled high blood pressure. I should never have taken up baking when I reached my fifties. I’m afraid ten years of my custard cream pie has done us both in.

Editor’s note: Mim and Arnold Davies are characters in a series of stories that I’m writing. — MAB

 

 

Notebook: Angels

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

Chanson de la plus haute tour (II) by Airair, 2007.

EYES FLUTTERING OPEN, ARNOLD IS ON THE DIM EDGE OF FREAKING OUT.

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.

 Head of the Virgin in Three-Quarter View Facing Right by Leonardo da Vinci

“WE’RE GOING TO GIVE YOU SOMETHING FOR PAIN.”

“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.

Head of a Negro by Peter Paul Rubens

“BREATHE DEEPLY, ARNOLD,” THE NURSE SAYS.

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.

Woman Embroidering by August Macke, German, 1909.

DEAR ARNOLD, MIM THINKS, DO YOU REMEMBER THAT SONG ON THE RADIO WHEN WE MET?

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.