The old man groaned. Mary lifted him gently, inch by inch, his rigid limbs trembled. Diella realized what she was trying to do, and shifted the pillow back. Mary pulled until the small of his back fit into the bend of the hospital bed. Then pulled the blanket firmly about him
“We’ve got to keep the bend of his back in the bend of the bed”
“Better for his circulation. And he needs to sit up a couple hours a day, so he can see the larks”
She pushed him toward the open window, so he could see out over the junkyard, with the vines growing over the rusting cars, and the swallows darting from their nests. It was a bright clear morning. The birds chattered.
“Thank you, Mr. Johnson. You’ve been a hero” she gripped his hand. “I’m sorry about all this pushing and pulling, I’ll be back in half an hour with your breakfast, and George should be here with the stories very soon.”
Then she bent her head by his, and prayed through the Our Father. Mr Johnson was not speaking any more, his eyes just stared. But Anja imagined she saw his lips trying to move as she prayed. When it was over, Mary smiled at him, (her warm camp-fire like smile, Anja thought)
“I’m be coming back”
And she kissed his old cheek, fussed with the pillows one more time, and then followed Anja down the hall. She always did that for all the dying, Anja noted. Though Anja had yet to see her even hold the hand of her boyfriend. If that's who he was. That man all bulky in coats and gear, but quick and silent as a cat, holding his shoulders like a king. It started the night when she was on the malaria floor, she had come up to the dying floor for gauze wrap. She saw Mary working, and then this man came, She ducked down by a patient’s bed and watched. It was all too novel-like and mysterious not to. The two of them talking in their little circle of lamplight in the darkness, like a stage-light, and him giving her mysterious packages. After that, she found reasons to help out on the dying floor at night. But she’d mostly been disappointed, the handful of times he came they just stood by the pillar, whispering, and then he’d disappear in half an hour. And the mysterious package he’d given her, Anja found on further espionage into hall closet, turned out to be beef jerky and granola bars.
She’d asked Tessa once, who he was, why he was so mysterious, and why he left so soon. Tessa had told her to mind her own business, but on further prying, had cryptically said “perhaps he has reasons to be mysterious.” Which only made it that much more interesting.
But after that Tessa wouldn’t talk any more, and somehow made sure her nightshifts were always on some other floor. Which was ok. After witnessing a few deaths there, Anja decided it wasn't worth a smidgen of awkward romance.
But she still hadn’t dared ask Mary about it. Perhaps for the fear it would turn out he was trucker or a rancher or something boring, and mostly because, well, she didn’t want Mary to know she knew. To know she had a boyfriend would be an invasion of privacy, somehow, like reading someone else’s diary.
Mary wiped her brow. She was small, and lifting the patients took a lot out of her.
“At noon we’ll have to put Mr. Johnson in the flat bed again, if you could help me again with that”
“Why don’t we just make the bed flat, I mean, it’s a hospital bed”
“I thought you said we had a couple dozen working ones?”
“You can’t get any new ones from the hospital supply branch?”
Mary smiled wryly.
“It was them who took the working ones away.”
“To be distributed to hospitals who ‘were more vital to the community’”
“Well, how are we going to serve the community if we haven’t got working equipment? Hey, didn’t they take the oxygen tanks too? And—“
But seeing the pain on Mary’s face stopped. It was still raw. She realized for every oxygen tank and bed taken, Mary had to evict, or shut off the oxygen for a patient. Only to Mary they weren’t ‘patients’, terminal anyways. To her they were ‘Mr. Johannsen’, ‘Mrs. Gallenham’, “Jordan”….And Mary felt the shame of watching them lose the little she had been able to give them. Drat those bureaucrats. But had they been right? Didn’t an otherwise healthy college student or 7 year old child need the oxygen more than say, one of Mary’s terminal old people, or preemie who didn’t stand a decent chance?
“Well, we’re not a real hospital, we are a terminal ward after all. I guess we have to make the best of the leftover tech from the other hospitals, hah, its already like that with the patients”
“We’re all terminal”
She looked at Mary. She was angry. She never had seen Mary angry. Together they changed the bandages on the entire wing, Marys lips pressed together white, in silent fury.
The stepped out into the hallway. Mary held her face, slumping against the wall. She was tired.
“Look, if you need a break, I think I can handle…”
“No, Anja. Forgive me. I was wrong to hate”
“For taking the oxygen tanks?”
“for taking the beds, the oxygen, the medicines, the surgery tools, the maternity unit, the---everything they’ve done to this hospital. It used to be what you called ‘a real hospital’. After the riots, I thought we could carry on, many people would know we weren’t monsters, I thought. But then the regulators came....and it’s like this now. The only reason they let us care for----how you said it, ‘the leftovers’---is because the‘leftovers’ no longer ‘qualify.’ So they may as well come to us, they think, come to our bombed out shell of a ‘terminal ward.”
It was the most words Anja had ever heard come from Mary’s mouth at once.
“I must forgive them, Anja, but how? The bitterness, I hold on to it”
Anja shuffled her feet. She was embarrassed. How exactly she had become Mary’s confessor she wasn’t sure.
“Pray for me Anja, there is poison in me. The patients deserve better than me like this. If they can forgive---and Anja, they have forgiven so much—then I can forgive---”
There was another silence.
“I confess to Almighty God, to Mary ever virgin, to Michael…
Anja really didn’t want to be here for this.
…and to all the saints that I have sinned exceedingly in thought, word, and deed…
Anja was paralyzed by awkwardness
through my fault, through my fault, through my most grievous fault….
Just when she thought it couldn’t get any more awkward, Mary was thumping herself. Anja inwardly groaned and shut her eyes. Mary was not a dramatic person. This felt painful, like watching a junior high school play.
…. and all the saints, to pray for me to the Lord our God. Amen.
Anja didn’t move, paralyzed by awkwardness.
Mary wiped her brow, straightened up, smiling in thanks, like Anja had just ordered her a sandwich from a cafe.
“Thank you for praying for me”
Anja nodded, because she didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t that she didn’t pray. She just preferred now to think of the God of her childhood as a Higher Power, a force of love, who was there for you, somehow.
But this king on a throne whose peons had to beat their chests and wail about being the scum of the earth? It was all so…medieval.
“They’re talking about the Pastor Karol scandal.”
Mary looked sad, and bent back over the bandaging.
“Yes?” her fingers still pulling the gauze strips tight.
“Why do—why do you religious ones, insist on telling everyone your high standards?”
Mary was quiet.
“I mean, isn’t it better just to live them? Whey talk about the sexual commands in the Bible? This pastor scandal was a shame, but I know this happens all the time in the corporate world….we’re humans. It happens. But no one cares, because they don’t go around telling people what to do, that God sayeth thou shalt not...I mean, its good to have convictions, but why announce them? If you tell people that’s how they’re supposed to behave, one, they’re not going to listen to you, and two, it just makes them mad. Why even talk about them at all? Don’t let them know you have this crazy high standard, because then they use it against you when you can’t keep it, and they take it for granted, when you do. Isn’t it better to let your actions speak for themselves? And then, when you do mess up, it’s not as big of a deal, they’ll say, hey, my boss does that all the time, an only a handful of the pastors do it”
Mary finished wrapping the arm, and tied off the gauze strands. She stood up.
“Anja, did you ever wonder why we wear white at the hospital?”
“So the dirt will show.”
She got up, and began to wash the open bedsores with a fresh bowl of water.***