Notebook: My Character Clemency Begins Chemo

Editor’s note: In the months since I last wrote to you at Joyous Paradox, I have begun a novel. Four women meet and bond in a healing garden, a cancer support center modeled after the Virginia Thurston Healing Garden in the town of Harvard, MA. GrubStreet Creative Writing Center has given me a scholarship to the Novel Generator, a nine-month program for writers working on their first draft. In the following excerpt, Clemency Weems, a Boston widow in her mid-sixties, has begun chemotherapy for metastatic breast cancer. In this scene, she is imagining what she will talk about in a support group at the garden. — MAB

Rogier van der Weyden, Descent from the Cross (detail)What story will Clemency tell today? A chemotherapy treatment regimen comes with its own built-in narrative arc, no matter how changeable the side effects, no matter how variable the outcome.

First you enter the cave, then the poisons are pumped into your body, and then you go home to await the symptoms, which could be fatigue, nausea, vomiting, chills, fever, diarrhea, itching, weakness, mouth sores, dizziness, tingling and numbness in your feet, or a profoundly convincing sense that you’re better off dead. Or that you’re dying. Or that you’ve abandoned your Life, like abandoning a small child in the middle of a crowded street fair.

You float above the crowd at the fair, watching your Life scan the strangers’ legs and call out for her mom.

“Mommy, where are you?” she screams. She cries, her face pinched tight around her eyes/nose/open-and-astonished mouth.

Someone comforts her, arm around her shoulders, and rubs her back, the flowered cotton dress soaked with sweat between her young shoulder-blades. She buries her face in the Comforter’s broad shoulder.

Then, Kleenex administered, trip to Porta-Potty completed, your Life stands hand in hand with the Comforter at the fried-dough stand. Powdered sugar or maple syrup? Both? Both.

Where is your Life when your body reaches the nadir? More precisely, the nadir is the point at which the chemo drugs have killed their maximum number of white blood cells for this cycle, as well as their maximum number of cancer cells and red blood cells, and swift-dividing cells in your mouth, digestive tract, and hair follicles. Fewer white blood cells mean that your immune system is at its weakest.

For these few days of nadir, you stay home, avoiding crowds, imploring your family and friends not to come if they have colds or other infections.

Do you have to worry that your daughter-in-law Rhonda, who makes no secret of her frequent yeast infections, will use your toilet and leave little yeast organisms behind to attack you from within?

Albrecht Dürer, Portrait of Barbara Dürer, Dürer's Mother (detail)Is your use of disinfectant wipes compulsive yet? Or do you pray before grasping the glass knob on your bathroom door that everyone has washed their hands thoroughly before leaving the facilities? Is your Life in isolation, that young creature in flowered cotton, cared for by masked and gowned attendants?

Finally, the hoped-for recovery. Symptoms recede. One morning you wake from restful sleep. You and your Life, joined in one shaky body. Unutterably weary. Unutterably relieved. Yet the ground is no longer the ground, the stone no longer the stone. You float in the knowledge that true North is no longer true.

– Mary Ann Barton, 9/24/2016

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.

Safe Space Radio

Guilt When a Parent Dies

Editor’s note: How does a single voice manage to share such rich and heart-grained stories? Listen here, dear readers, to two plainspoken men as they talk about guilt when a parent dies with Dr. Anne Hallward of the Maine radio program, Safe Space Radio. — MAB

We continue our series on hidden feelings this week with two stories about guilt, the kind we feel when we believe we didn’t do enough at the end of a parent’s life.  We’ll hear from people who were troubled by the way they failed to show up for their parents, and discuss the process of finding relief from that guilt. — Dr. Anne Hallward, Safe Space Radio

http://safespaceradio.com/2015/04/guilt-when-a-parent-dies/

Copyright © 2015 Safe Space Radio, All rights reserved. Posted with permission of the author.