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.


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,” 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


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? 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.

The Town of Kindness

A Story in Memory of Nurse Julie

Editor’s note: I wrote the original of this story many years before meeting my nurse-mentor, Julie. She died in October, 2013, after a long journey with cancer. Julie taught me that sometimes the most comforting thing one can do when sorrow comes is to wash the floor, so today I’m sharing this story with you. — MAB

Scullery Girls by Rudolf KremlickaThe women and men of Kindness are scrubbing the streets of the town. They are scrubbing with bristle brushes and buckets of water. Scrubbing over and over the cornerstones and cobblestones and bricks and pavements of the streets. They scoop the brushes, whoosh, into the buckets. Sweep, sweep, scrub-scrub-scrub, sweeping their brushes around those old, worn curbs and courses of sidewalk, clear water darkening to black.

And you know this one morning at the end of the month the pleasure is so clear; my hands feel the warm water rinsing and dripping off the wooden back of the brush, the bristles softening with age and use. Still scrubbing, I dream beside the soft, old mud on the side of the one street where there is no sidewalk. The dust and old leaves in the gutter turn wet and run down the storm drain with the water.

And the children of our town are bringing the buckets of water. Warm water, and it’s slopping out down into their shoes, slopping into their shoes as they carry these buckets, which are heavy, full, slippery. Children carry; they lug, heft, slosh, pull, tug on these buckets, and bump them down to their mothers and fathers.

The mothers and fathers of Kindness scrub the streets. And the small children squeeze leaves of ceanothus, the soap-making bush; they Haltern Canalizzazionepick leaves and twigs and berries of ceanothus; they scrub it in the water, where it makes soapy bubbles in the palm of the hand. It smells a slightly sweet, green smell. And the ceanothus soap goes into the buckets of water and we scrub it over the pavements, over the dip in the curb where the storm drain opens, over the handicapped ramps at the corners. We are scrubbing the brick wall of the day care on the corner, and then the rain comes.

The rain comes, the warm rain washes down on us. The rain wets our faces and our backs and our wool sweaters. We are easing our muscles in this warm water. The men and women and children of Kindness are wet. And we are happy.

House of Love and Psyche in Ancient OstiaImage credits (from top): Scullery Girls by Rudolf Kremlička, oil on canvas, 1919. Rudolf Kremlička [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

Haltern am See (Germany), water and decoration with stones in the street near the tower, color photograph, 2009. By MM (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

House of Love and Psyche in ancient Ostia, color photograph of pavement with multicolored marble, 2011. By Dalbera from Paris, France [CC-BY-2.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons.

Sad: My Nurse-Mentor Is in Hospice

Editor’s note: Six-Word Memoirs® is a project of SMITH Magazine that challenges us to tell a story in six words. “Writing in Six Words,” says the online publication’s editor, “is a simple, creative way to get to the essence of anything—from the breaking news of the day to your own life and the way you live it.” Here are my six words, with an illustration and a little bit of the story below.


Sad: my nurse-mentor is in hospice.

Lady by Rogier van der Weyden

My nurse-mentor is young, only 64, but she has a brain tumor. I am young, too, only 63. I learned so much from her. She is in hospice care. It could be me, there, going to doctors and hospitals, learning new things about the body, the brain, the mind. But we will all remember her with love. And one day, when it is my turn, I will take my place and say goodbye. So today, I thank her for teaching, and you for listening.

First appeared in Six-Word Memoirs®,
Image credit:  Portrait of a Lady, oil on oak panel, ca. 1450,  By Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400–1464) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.