I nearly didn’t go this morning. I have too many things to juggle between now and tomorrow’s noon wedding and the flight to a family funeral to follow.
Still, they haunted me and hounded me out of the door. They demanded to be heard, to be seen, to be made a priority in the list of “to-attend-to”s in my head.
The ones from 25 years past: young, foolish, dead.
The one from three years ago: older, too long dying, and too long dead.
The one in the back of my car, yesterday.
The coroner at this morning’s opiate addiction summit said, “Pay attention to the dead: each one has paid a high cost to teach you something.”
The public health expert stated that, “America has an addiction problem.”
More than one speaker questioned our cultural intolerance to pain. The television sells us a pill for every ill; every visit to the doctor asks, “Are you in any pain today?” One of them said, “Life is not pain-free,” and he was right. Anyway, the trading of physical pain for an addiction which will cause anguish and agony far beyond one’s own knees does not seem like a good trade-off, to me.
We heard the statistics that for every opioid overdose death that comes to the attention of the coroner, another 100 people are abusing heroin, or fentanyl. That doesn’t count the people hooked on legal, prescribed painkillers. Anywhere from 1 in 5 to 1 in 3 of those heroin fatalities that ends up in the coroner’s office started out as the victim of pain, from an accident, or an injury, or surgery, and became the victim of a pain-relief addiction.
My friend and I, at the break, wondered together what our role as pastors might be in the prevention and treatment of that epidemic. Raising awareness is a low-hanging fruit. Asking our parishioners before they go in for that surgery what their plan is for pain relief, whether they have discussed with their doctors the risks of addiction, of over-prescription and drug hoarding – some conversations will be easier than others. Going home and checking our own medicine cabinets for abusable and marketable pills – that’s a no-brainer. Surely, in the shadow of the cross and resurrection scars, we should have something to say about the problem of pain, and the idol we make out of our own brilliant panaceas.
It is easy, when life is easy and relatively comfortable, to say such things. It is easy to think that I would be immune; but it has become frighteningly normal, this descent into hell, and the grave beyond.
Yesterday, in the back of my car, the bubbly 11-year-old who ten minutes earlier had been turning cartwheels in the church meeting room kept up a constant stream of commentary.
“That’s where Daddy works.”
“The baseball is playing tonight – look! The screen is lit up!”
“Did Davey kill himself or was he murdered?”
I glanced at her mother, who peered forward through the windscreen, as if to look for a way out of answering.
“Those aren’t the only options,” I tried. “Sometimes people just die.”
Mother, still staring into the traffic in front of us, filled in a detail. “He ingested a fentanyl patch which was meant to go on the skin. They didn’t find him for three days.”
The child, all-knowing and curious, persisted, “So did he kill himself, or did the person who gave him the patch kill him?”
Three days. The image never leaves you. The opened door, the stone rolled away, the shock of death emptying itself into the corridor; life recoils. The Easter irony does not escape me. But it is no April Fools’ joke.
We have a problem.