The modern gods of pain


Being ill or caring for someone you love in their illness is hard enough without narcissists pouring their malformed proofs into your ear.

One warm summer morning – it was 3 or 4am – in December a decade or so ago, having been sat for a good few hours by my daughter’s bed in the Sydney Children’s Hospital (Hallowed be its name) as she recovered from yet another bout of pneumonia, I decided it was time to nip off to the loo. Maybe, I thought, even to grab a coffee and a sarnie.

After a few days, she was breathing more easily once again. Her little body wasn’t heaving as it despaired for air. Her eyes were closed and she was sleeping. So, coffee seemed very much in order as a small celebration.

I remember the coffee machine being quite a schlep away from Zuzu’s room. I remember wanting a cigarette too, but I’d been trying to quit again. Your daughter’s respiratory problems will do that. So, instead I chewed another nicotine tablet and navigated the corridors of the SCH.

Though not as packed with anxious parents and carers, medical staff and cleaners as it would be in a few hours, the hospital was still populated by that mix of worried and joyful adults that is peculiar to children’s wards and hospitals. The atmosphere was hopeful. I’ve found the same to be true on neuro wards but that’s a story for another time.

I stopped to chat with a couple of familiar faces, a cleaner from Brazil called Luis who was going to become a nurse as soon as some official paperwork had cleared. We talked football and beaches. Nearer to the coffee machine I met David, the parent of a little boy called Kai who had fallen out of a tree and sustained quite a major concussion. Kai had returned to full consciousness last evening. David had taken over the watch from his wife. We discussed what we’d been like as small boys; him in country New South Wales, me in country Old England.

Everybody was doing their best to make the best of what were truly terrible circumstances for their families. On the wards, people offered to help others in simple ways.

“We’re off to the shops, do you want anything? Ice lolly? Paper?”

“How’s Zuzu going?”

“Is Frankie getting better?”

“Are you looking after yourself?”

“Is your wife good?”

“There’s a good restaurant up the road a bit, run by the bloke who ran Balzac in town, give it a go mate”.

“We heard that Tony’s going home today, can I give you this card from Joe and us. Joe would love to stay in touch”.

“I hope you don’t mind, here’s a little something from us for the nurses, thank you so much”.

“Here’s our address if you need anything at all, especially after the funeral”.

These sorts of comments passed between people every day and every night. Simple stuff. Supportive. Unintrusive. Everybody just seemed to understand that you always asked permission. Everybody had enough to contend with; on a daily basis we all had to understand new and sometimes highly technical information about people we loved, about their lives and – although we never said it – about the possibility of their early deaths.

There was someone else in her room

Having finished my chats, and got my not too terrible coffee from the vending machine, I made my way back to Zuzu’s room. She had a room because she was tiny and she was hooked up to so much beeping medical hardware, wires and tubes that she was almost invisible. This might have been upsetting for the other kids, and really upsetting for other parents.

However, when I reached her glass-panelled door I could see that there was something else – someone else – in the room.

A large figure was crouched over Zuzu’s bed. It wasn’t a nurse. Nor a doctor. It was a woman; she was both tall and also the shape of a New York fire hydrant. She looked to be in her 30s. I could see that she had even moved some of the kit around to make it easier for her to loom over my little daughter. Fear, then horror then anger were all I seemed to be. For a second I didn’t know what to do.

Or rather I did. My first reaction was to steam into the room, yelling, and dragging this person away. As far away as possible, possibly out of the third floor window. Instead I opened the door and walked in to hear a woman’s voice intoning some kind of prayer.

“What are you doing?” I asked with as much seething anger as I would civilly allow. I had been horrified,

“The poor thing. Poor little thing. Is she yours? I was praying for her journey onwards to the God. I was praying to God for her. She’s going to be an angel for sure”, the figure turned around and tried to take my hand.

She was dressed in a black blouse, with a long black dress that touched the floor. Her hair was in a tight bun, her thin, metal rimmed spectacles balanced on her sharp nose that was distinctly out of place on her extraordinarily round face.

She was smiling and her expensively white teeth seemed to glint in the nightlight by Zuzu’s bed.

Around her neck was a thin, gold chain and at the centre of the loop was a long, thick, silver crucifix complete with the tortured Christ.

Zuzu was asleep. She was breathing gently, only a few rattles from her assaulted four-year old lungs.

I took my hand back and said, “Please leave now”.

“But sir, I haven’t finished my prayer for this little angel in waiting. For you. I’m praying for you too. I’ll finish and we can have a moment of contemplation”, said the woman.

She seemed affronted, even shocked, by the idea that I didn’t want nor need her intrusion. As for her certainty that my daughter was dying – and her voicing of this certainty to me in Zuzu’s earshot – that was sheer brutality.

Her’s was an aggressive, vicious certainty shorn of anything even remotely of human or humane connection. She had Faith, and that superseded everything else. Her self-righteousness was her power.

God, rather than basic decency or any possible grounding in the facts of the situation, was all she required to justify her actions. By praying for a child she was getting closer to God. She was being seen by Him. She was closer to Him. This was about her and her greatness I realised.

The actual effects of what she was doing was not relevant at all. That real world of real feelings, real simply did not matter to her

I also realised that she was physically harmless. I stuck my head out of the door and beckoned to one of the nurses, who came over and tried to usher the woman away and off the ward. The woman was angry and began talking about her right to prayer in a public hospital (there isn’t one), and about God’s infinite mercy and wrath.

“Who is she?” I asked the nurse. I thought she’d tell me that it was Maureen the kind and gentle lost soul who popped in every so often to pray at people souls.

“I’ve no idea. I’ve never seen her before. Can you wait here? I’ll called security”.

Security came. The woman was escorted out. Zuzu slept on. I sat by her bed and held her hand until my wife arrived.

Zuzu sleeping. She was a baby when this photo was taken.
Baby Zuzu – contentedly asleep and breathing easily.

The next time I saw a figure like that

So, why am I illustrating this story with an image of the disgraced and struck-off former nurse and current conspiratrix supremé, Kate Shemirani? Because I recognise the woman from my daughter’s hospital bed in her.

I recognise her total and complete belief in the centrality of Herself to vulnerable people’s lives and deaths. I recognise her security in the ineffable – in her case this isn’t God – he’s too small for Kate Shemirani and people like her. She holds up her security on banners declaring connections drawn between facts, half-truths and certain fictions.

Like prayer creates angels, these connections of the supremely unprovable created SuperFacts, which preside and loom over people, which rule people by their persistence, repetition and by her pure volume.

Like the woman in the room who didn’t care what nightmares her incantations might conjure just as long as she got one step closer to the right hand of the Lord, people like Shemirani don’t care about the people whooping and hoping in the face of her magical thinking. She has no salve, no cures, nothing to make anything better for anybody. That makes her terrifying.

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