Pain management and the stained glass dove

Illustration by Anna DeSmet

By Dylan Greer

The best view of the lake at St. Mark’s was in the chapel on the third floor through the stained glass window gifted to the hospital by a big pharmaceutical company in the sixties. The clearest tiles were the wings of a dove and through them the lake lay comatose across the earth. At sunset, the light shined through the wings and casted images across the chapel floor.

The chapel was small and unordained, the only flair coming from the window. The fake mahogany pues accented the cheap wallpaper, peeling in some parts, and non-denominational yet vaguely religious artwork was held up by thumb-tacks. At the very front of the chapel was a music stand with a microphone clipped to the top where Pastor Nuñez would deliver his sermons. Some weeks, when no one came to listen, the pastor would go outside and smoke cigars until lunch.

Last sunday, only one person came. She was young and pencil-thin. The sermon was on preparation, the second of four that Nuñez used in a rotation, and she didn’t seem to be too interested in what he said. She sat, taking up as little space as possible, glued to the wall like a leftover grain of rice stuck to a pot. Nuñez noticed her but did not look at her while he spoke, shifting his eyes from the old clock above the door to the linoleum-tiled floor. The same pattern that graced the rest of the hospital.

After the final prayer — something about letting God steer your life like an omnipotent truck driver — she left, tripping over her heels as she walked out, and Nuñez hadn’t seen her since. He hadn’t seen anyone. Most of his days were spent staring through the dove’s wings and counting the trees ringing the lake.

Today was no different. 37, 38, 39–

“Father?”

Nuñez turned and saw the girl from the sermon; she wasn’t in a hospital gown, and he saw no sign of a bracelet dripping from her wrists. “It’s pastor, actually,” he said.

“I wanted to ask you about the speech you gave on Sunday. The thing that you said about preparing for death rather than waiting for it?” She made strong eye contact, but her lips and hands shook while she spoke. She lifted her sleeve, revealing scratch marks that had darkened to become bruises, and scratched at her arm. “What does it look like?”

Nuñez motioned her to the the front pew and they sat next to each other. She smelled of hand sanitizer and black pepper. The pastor worried he smelled of tobacco.

“What brings you to the hospital?” he asked.

“My mom is sick,” she said. “I wanna know how to be prepared when she…” Her sentence ended there and they listened to the sound of machines through the chapel walls.

“I’m sorry to hear about your mother. Have you tried talking to a grief counselor? The hospital has a couple on staff that I could refer you to—”

“No,” she said, startling herself with her urgency, “No, its fine. No doctors, I just want a little help figuring out what to do when she’s gone.” She got up and walked over to the colored glass. Nuñez watched as she put her finger to a joint and followed it down to the bottom of the pane.

“Sometimes there is nothing we can do. We just have to accept the pain and do the best we can to make it through each day. God has more plans for you.” He smiled. Nuñez’s faith in God never trembled, but his faith in the church was epileptic.

She nodded to her feet and said quietly, “I’ve never dealt well with pain.”

“What happened to your mom?” Nuñez asked. It grew quiet enough for them to hear Frank Sinatra singing in the next room. The pastor knew the song, but couldn’t remember the name.

“She took too many pills and now she’s in a coma. I don’t know why she would do this to me,” she said.

“It’s important to look at the big picture. God does not make mistakes, He does everything for a reason.” Sometimes Nuñez felt like an actor repeating lines he was taught at seminary. “Give it time, I’m sure His grace will reveal itself.”

Her lips were chapped and she licked them while she scratched her thigh. “Thank you, that’s helpful,” she said.

Then she turned and offered to shake the pastor’s hand. He looked into her eyes; they were glossy, from crying Nuñez thought, and sunk deep into her bony face. He shook her hand and she left.

The next Sunday morning Nuñez hoped to see her at his sermon, but 10 o’clock passed and the chapel was empty. He considered smoking but decided to stay and recite the lines from the third sermon in his rotation: “Loss is impossible without love, in the same way pain is impossible without pleasure.” He looked at the clock. “Scripture tells us ‘The Lord is close to the brokenhearted’ and ‘blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.’” 10:30. “In Revelation we are told ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’” Nuñez stepped back from the pulpit and gathered his things before opening the door and walking down the hallway to the exit.

She was sitting in a chair next to the nurses station and looked helpless as he walked by, like a mouse caught in a trap. She looked at the ground and scratched her arm.

The pastor walked up to her and said “Hey.” She didn’t respond.

“Don’t talk to her.” Sherry, one of the nurses, was watching over her. She took a hit from her nasal spray. Nuñez, and the rest of the hospital staff, knew that the nurses kept a solution of cocaine and water in them to get through long shifts, but nobody spoke openly about it. “She stole a prescription pad. I told her I’d throw her ass in jail if she moves or says a word.”

She looked up at Nuñez but as soon as he returned her gaze she looked away. He went outside for a cigar.

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