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.

Cool Tools: The Steal Like an Artist Journal

The Steal Like an Artist Journal by Austin CleonJoyous Paradox readers know that two of my favorite tools for caregiver wellbeing are creative self-expression and comic relief. Writer Austin Kleon’s new Steal Like an Artist Journal: A Notebook for Creative Kleptomaniacs offers us ample room for both. This graphical playground-in-a-book is packed with prompts for comic as well as serious journal entries. Take it with you and write, sketch, doodle, improvise away!

Today, I’m sharing a pair of entries from my journal with you. My choice of theme: cats vs. dogs. Which tip jars would get your money if you saw them on your favorite coffee shop’s counter? Check out Instagram for more #stealjournal photos.

Barista Tip Jar Page

Steal Like an Artist Journal Tip Jar Page

Barista Tip Jar page from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist Journal. Today’s theme: cats vs. dogs.

Tip Jar Sketch Page

Tip Jar Heart #1 by Mary Ann Barton

Mary Ann’s Tip Jar Sketch Page offers an expanded version of her Barista Tip Jar page from Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist Journal. What gets your heartfelt vote? Cats, dogs, gerbils, or budgies?

 

 

Washing His Bright Hands (I’ll Fly Away)

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele

Study of Hands by Egon Schiele, Austrian, 1921, via Wikimedia Commons.

Mmm, hmm. Mmm, hmm. Song’s in my breath this morning, dear heart. “Some bright morning, when this life is over, I’ll fly away.”

Here’s the basin, dear heart; here’s the soap, the towels. “To that home on God’s celestial shore, I’ll fly away.”

So, dear heart, let me take your hand. You wake? Morning time, sir. Your eyes open; good. You sleep okay? Good, good. You remember me? Mary Ann? Right, I’m your aide, here to get you up for breakfast. You hungry? Get you some coffee soon, black and hot like you like it. First wash up a bit. Freshen up, start the day out right.

Ah, this man’s bright hands. When I hold his right hand, his skin is translucent. I see through it like cellophane over one of those hollow decorated eggs. You peer inside at frost flowers, you see blue veins; you see tendons flex and stretch, bones lift and bend and twist. Each joint, a full knot, moves slippery in my hand, soapy lavender smell washing away that night-bloom sweat. Flesh at the curved edge of his palm like putty rolled between silk.

When you get to this age, all human hands come down to this: bone under silk, my hands in blue vinyl gloves holding and turning his hands, passing the washcloth over the skin like polishing silver for Thanksgiving table. Silver and mica and blue and bone. Body heat. Lavender. My eyes fall over his hands, his eyes, his winged and naked shoulder. Silence; his ragged breath; the ringing in my ears as of distant and unearthly bells.

“I’ll fly away, oh glory, I’ll fly away (in the morning). When I die, hallelujah by and by, I’ll fly away.”

— Mary Ann Barton

The song is I’ll Fly Away (O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack) by Gillian Welch and Alison Krauss. The date is September 11.

Arnold Sacks: A Portrait by Summer Pierre

Oliver Sacks: An Artist’s Tribute

Taking The World Into His Arms

by Summer Pierre

An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver SacksAs almost everyone knows, we lost the great writer and neurologist Oliver Sacks on Sunday.  His books were enormously important to me.  He had been on my family’s bookshelves for years, and had been spoken of with such reverence from my folks, that I felt I knew him before I had read anything. Then while recovering from surgery on the couch at my folks’ place, I picked up An Anthropologist on Mars and immediately fell in love with essays.  It was clear from the first reading that he was a man who was deeply curious and delighted by all he encountered in the world.  I never came away from his books without feeling that the world was totally broken open to me in a new way.

I will probably re-read one of his most recent meditations on dying several times throughout the rest of my life to remember how powerful the human experience is–even at the end, which Sacks described so vividly and with love.  Like every one else, I followed any and all inklings to his failing health after his announcement in February of his terminal condition.  My husband Graham was the one who broke the news to me and was not surprised when I cried openly upon hearing it.  I said, “I don’t think there is anyone I’d rather hear more from on what dying is like.”  Graham, without missing a beat, said: “I think he would love to tell us about it if he could.”

I think of him in these lines of the Mary Oliver poem “When Death Comes”:

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life

I was a bride married to amazement.

I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

May we all be so fortunate to be so alive and awake to the surrounding world while we are here as he seemed to be.

Summer Pierre: Self-PortraitSummer Pierre is a cartoonist, illustrator, writer, and teacher in Highland Falls, NY. You can read her autobiographical comic series called Paper Pencil Life at her blog, Studio of Summer Pierre. This post is reprinted with her permission. — MAB

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths

Dear Emma: Snappy Letters to My Alter Ego

Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-LengthsEditor’s note: From time to time I share my writing process with readers of the Joyous Paradox blog. Today’s post is about my literary character Emma Davies, who began showing up in my notebook when my son Edward was in elementary school. (He’s now 35.)

“Who are you, Emma Davies?” I asked her, when her name first slipped into my consciousness all those years ago. “Why do you feel so familiar?”

Back then, all I could see of Emma’s life was the title of a story, “Emma Visits the Wise Woman.” It’s a story I hope to write one day. In the meantime, I often write to Emma in my notebook. Here’s a recent sample, edited and extended for clarity. Hope you like it. — Mary Ann Barton

Girl Writing by Franz NölkenSunday, June 7, 2015

Dear Emma,

It’s crowded and noisy here in the First Parish parlor. Small boys bounce up and down on the antique sofa. They hop off and drop to the oriental rug on the floor.

“Let’s say goodbye to Nana,” says a mother to her son.

“Bye, Nana,” the little boy mumbles.

“Nana can’t hear you,” his mother says. “It’s very loud in here.”

“Nana!” he yells, tugging his grandmother’s sleeve. “Goodbye, Nana!”

I’m writing this letter to you while I wait for Steve to finish chatting with the ministerial intern. I’d like to go somewhere quiet and write my author bio to share with Susan and Stephanie when we meet at Dumpling Daughter tomorrow to talk about book marketing.

Essayist Mary Ann Barton has taken full advantage of the opportunities life offers for failure and rebirth. Working as a rare coin dealer, arts agency desk-jockey, lobbyist, textbook proofreader, and library fundraiser, she found her niche in her fifties as a certified nursing assistant and companion to elders. Her work in progress, a trilogy of self-help books called Rest, Renewal, and Repose, will help family caregivers of all ages get back to sleep when worrying about a loved one who is very old, very young, or facing serious illness. She blogs about caring for ourselves as we care for others at JoyousParadox.com.

Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida SerebriakovaHere’s what I write about, Emma: How we live with others. How we live with ourselves. I’m writing a peach of a book for family caregivers. I want you to pick up Rest in the middle of the night when your old dad or your tiny child is safe in bed. Find tips and techniques for caring for your body, mind, and soul. Read a poem about a garden, a grocery list, or a grandmother who plays the cello. Love a painting by Philippe Mercier. Write in your journal. Dance as you cook dinner. Stretch your arms wide with an Octaband.

Really, Emma, caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.

For some of us, there’s so much accumulated hurt and resentment that the free flow of love and concern is jammed up behind a Hoover Dam of bad memories.

For some of us, love flows so freely that we can’t let ourselves even dip a toe in the reality that we might lose our dearest on earth.

Writing a Letter by Kusakabe KimbeiFor all of us, there are images, real or imagined. I look at the shifting family groups in the church parlor — women and men and grandparents and babies and five-year-olds and young girls who might be anything from ten to 17 — and see them as photographs in an album.

Maybe the photos have a matte finish like the slightly pebbled surface of an oldfashioned school portrait. Mrs. Ansell’s Second Grade. That First Vacation at Lake Sunapee.  The Balloon Flight in Southern France. Our Last Visit with Grandma Hyde.

Maybe one day I’ll see a photo or a painting, Emma, and know that this is your likeness. I can’t wait.

Love no matter what,

Mary Ann

Copy this text to tweet: Caring for a loved one can be full of surprises. As Facebook would say, it’s complicated.  #caregivers

Image credits: Portrait of a Lady as the Magdalen by Master of the Female Half-Lengths, Netherlands (fl. circa 1500–1530), via Wikimedia Commons. Girl Writing by Franz Nölken, German, 1916, via Wikimedia Commons. Portrait of Lola Braz by Zinaida Serebriakova, Russian, 1910, via Wikimedia Commons. Writing Letter by Kusakabe Kimbei, Japanese, before 1933, via Wikimedia Commons.

Hot Valentine’s Day

It’s Valentine’s Day. Things are heating up in our house.

1. Hot kisses.

Loving Couple (Mithuna)

Loving Couple (Mithuna), stone sculpture from 13th century India (Orissa), via Metropolitan Museum of Art, Purchase, Florance Waterbury Bequest, 1970.

2. Hot food.

Inside of a Cottage from A History of Madeira, 1821

Inside of a Cottage [detail] from A History of Madeira by “a resident of the island” (published by R. Ackermann, London), unknown artist, Madeira Islands, 1821, via Wikimedia Commons.

3. Warm cat.

Cold Nose, Warm Touch, Thermography of a Cat by yellowcloud

Cold Nose, Warm Touch, Thermography of a Cat by yellowcloud from Germany, 2011, via Wikimedia Commons.

4. Hot you, man.

Academic Study of a Male Torso by Ingres

Academic Study of a Male Torso by Jean August Dominique Ingres, French, 1801, via Wikimedia Commons.

5. The body, beautiful at any age.

Nude Old Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny

Nude Old Man in the Sun by Mariano Fortuny, Spanish, 1862-1863, via Wikimedia Commons.

6. Hot me, woman.

Venus with a Mirror by Titian

Venus with a Mirror by Titian, Italian, circa 1550, via Wikimedia Commons.

7. The body, beautiful at any age.

Old Woman at the Mirror by Bernardo Strozzi

Old Woman at the Mirror by Bernardo Strozzi, Italian, circa 1615, via Wikimedia Commons.

8. Hot dog! Hot Dog by Jkrane2, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Snowy Winter of 1918, New York, by Childe Hassam

Winter Caregiver Prayer

Dear Winter Caregiver, my Northern Hemisphere sleet-and-snow companion, you sliding on tiny, bouncing, translucent balls of ice in the Stop ‘N Shop parking lot, on your way to collect loaves and fishes for my dinner and yours, may you steer your way through the grocery aisles with my blessing.

In times past, I ran this errand for myself and my loved ones — able to run freely, then, though not during ice storms, remembering their preferences for golden raisins or pumpernickel bread, wheeling my cart past the lettuces (now a swallowing hazard), stopping in the frozen treats department to scan for sugar-free ice cream.

Once I gave. Now I receive. All I have left to give you is gratitude, that and clear direction, a shopping list printed with my wavering pen in hand, and forgiveness for any lapses in concentration.

Pace yourself, dear Winter Caregiver. Whatever the results of tomorrow’s biopsy, I’m stuck with the durable truths of life: that sleet falls in every New England winter; that daybreak rises from the bed of night; that night will fold me in her arms, one night, forever; that we all sleep, sometime, folding our bodies into the good earth with one last act of generosity.

— Mary Ann Barton

Editor’s note: I wrote this prayer from the point of view of someone who receives care, so it’s not about me. I’m still able to run freely, for which I’m grateful. But I can imagine a time when the roles will be reversed. The piece was first published in the newsletter of First Parish in Concord, MA (Unitarian Universalist) . — MAB

Image credit:  The Snowy Winter of 1918, New York, by Childe Hassam, American, 1918, via Wikimedia Commons.