Silent Confession
by Sandy Cohen



At 2:00 am on the coldest morning of January, I was taken by jet helicopter to the emergency room of Eastern Maine Medical Center, in Bangor. I was treated for a heart attack. That meant immediate cardiac surgery and the placement of two stents in a coronary artery. A year later, I had a defibrillator implanted in my chest to monitor my heart rate and, if ever I need it, to deliver a life-saving “therapy” of 14,000 volts.

“What does it feel like when a therapy happens?” I asked.

The cardiac surgeon who did the implant said, “It’s like being hit in the chest by a brick. The therapy makes some people fall. Others just pass out. You’ll certainly know it when it comes.”

My defibrillator never went off and after 14 months of inactivity, I forgot all about it.

Recently, I was in a different hospital, a smaller one closer to my island home, for a test that would have been routine except for the defibrillator. The test procedure, which started at 6:30 AM, was performed by Dr. Ross, a surgeon, assisted by a complete surgical staff in an operating theatre. This was more involved than I had expected, since this test is fairly simple and usually performed as an outpatient procedure. Dr. Ross, whom I had met previously, was fully gowned, and scrubbed. He introduced me to two anesthesiologists, also gowned and scrubbed. The first, Dr. Pauling, was there to turn off my defibrillator for the duration of the procedure. He did this by holding his stethoscope over the device while placing a specialized magnet on my chest. He explained, “The defibrillator emits a soft beep when it turns off. I can hear it with this,” indicating the frigid bell of the stethoscope.

“I’m going to inject Demerol now. You will relax and feel nothing. If you want to sleep, that’s fine,” Dr. Ritansky, the other anesthesiologist, told me.

The medical team was talking, I could hear them, but almost immediately I realized that while I was not actually sleeping, I felt nothing. I must have fallen asleep, because when the procedure was over, I was feeling very groggy. Dr. Pauling returned with the stethoscope and the magnet. His mask was off and I could see that he was a young man. He looked at me, “Are you OK?”

I smiled weakly.

“I can’t hear the beep,” Dr. Pauling said after several minutes of holding the stethoscope in various places on my chest. “It’s supposed to beep when it’s back on, and it didn’t beep.”

“Is it the same beep as the OFF?,” Dr. Ritansky asked.

“On this model, it’s supposed to be a faster beep rate for ON. Now I can’t tell if it’s on or off. I can’t release him unless I know for sure that it is on and working properly.” Dr. Pauling’s voice was agitated and louder. “I better get somebody from Guidant to plug him in to one of their computers and make certain it’s turned on. I’ll call the factory; see who they’ve got in Maine.”

“Meantime, I’ll arrange to put him into a recovery room until they get here,” Dr. Ross said.

I was put on a gurney and wheeled to the recovery room. It was very cold. I wanted a blanket.

Dr. Ross came by a short time later. “Luckily, there’s a Guidant engineer in Bangor attending surgical defibrillator implantations for two patients. But, they probably won’t get here until the late afternoon. Therefore, I’m going to admit you to the hospital for the day. Is that OK for you?”

“That’s fine with me. I’m exhausted. I hardly slept last night, and I’m still woozy from the remains of the demerol. I’d love to be able to sleep for a while. Could I get a blanket, please?”

I was wheeled to the elevator and taken to another wing of the hospital. Two orderlies lifted me to a bed in a two-person room.

The other patient, a slight man in his late seventies, with white hair, and thin pale face was already in the room sitting in a chair between the beds. He was dressed in a blue paisley robe. He quietly watched me being lifted into my bed. A nurse appeared with an intravenous drip for me. “This will keep you hydrated, it’s only saline solution,” she said. The nurse then covered me with a hot blanket, which felt great after the refrigeration of the recovery room. I luxuriated in the hospital bed, stretching and enjoying the comfort of the hot blanket. The nurse returned with some apple juice and another blanket.

I sat up and turned to see my new roommate, who moved his hand a little in a friendly wave of welcome.

“My name is Alexander.”

He extended his hand, which I shook, thinking it cold, dry and bony. His grip was faint and without power. He said nothing.

“What’s your name, please?” This seemed to embarrass him, because he looked down and slouched deeper into the chair. Then, he grunted and made a forced humming sound that went up and down as though he were trying to pronounce his name.

I realized then that verbal communication was impossible. I lay back into my pillows. “I’m glad to meet you.”

Just then a heavy, grey-haired woman in her late fifties wearing blue jeans and a shiny purple jacket with gold stitchery on the back indicating that she had once visited “Dollywood,” entered the room. She was accompanied by a teenage girl, wearing an earing through her lower lip. They walked quickly past me to the man in the chair.

“Let’s get you back in that bed, Wendell. You shouldn’t be out.” I could see the woman gripping the old man’s arm to get him up from the chair and moved to his bed. “Lois, you fluff Grampa’s pillows.”

As they settled the man in his bed, they moved a rolling bed table toward me. On it I could see two books. One, on its side, was a black hardcover Bible with wine-red page-ends and a red ribbon page marker sticking out. The other, also a hardcover book, stood slightly open and upright. It had a color-tinted picture of Jesus, in a radiant gold halo, resembling the kind of icon that might be seen at the Hermitage. Also on the table was a yellow pad of paper and a ball point pen.

The man pointed to the beaker of water on the sink. The young woman poured him a glass and arranged the straw so he could sip the water. The older woman sat in the chair and started to leaf through a People magazine that she had pulled from her shoulder bag.

“Did they call the church, Wendell? Oh, Christ, you wouldn’t know.” The older woman seemed annoyed. “Lois, go down to the nurses’ station and find out if the priest is coming.”

Lois returned with a nurse.

“Well, when is the priest coming?”

“Father Gallagher is out of town just now. Another priest is going to come by this afternoon, when he gets a chance. The church called about an hour ago. There is a chapel on the ground floor, if you want to have Mr. Reese meet the priest there. We can get transportation to take him.”

“What do you mean, ‘When he gets a chance?’” the woman interrupted the nurse. “He’s supposed to hear his confession, for Christ’s sake. Oh, great, the chapel. He can’t even get to the bathroom and you’re gonna take him all the way down to the chapel, Ya, right!”

The nurse shrugged her shoulders and left.

The younger woman went with her. “I’m gonna go to the gift shop, Mom.”

It was quiet at last. I was able to pull up my covers, and with the warmth of the hot blanket, slept the rest of the morning.

When an attendant brought in a tray of food for lunch, I awoke. The smell of chicken noodle soup and a hamburger brought my appetite into immediate focus. I glanced at my roommate and discovered that a nurse was helping him eat. His visitors were gone. He made his humming sounds and pointed when he needed a napkin, or wanted to drink. Then, when he had eaten enough, he pointed to the pad of yellow pages. The nurse handed him the pad and pen. He held the pen with care and steadied the pad of paper on his lap. He wrote something and showed it to the nurse. She read it.

“I’ll call the church again and see if they know when the priest is coming.” She picked up the phone next to his bed and told the switchboard to connect her with St. Vincent’s. She didn’t have to wait long.

“Hello, I’m Wendell Reese’s nurse at Downeast Maine Hospital,” she said into the phone. I wonder when the priest is coming to visit Mr. Reese. He’s waiting to meet with the priest.” There was a momentary silence as she held the phone to her head. “Thanks, I’ll tell him.”

She turned to Mr. Reese as she hung up the phone. “He’ll be here in two hours.”

Mr. Reese smiled, looking pleased. As the tray was removed, and his bed put into reclining position, he prepared to rest.

Later in the afternoon, a tall, slender priest came into the room. He was escorted by the nurse who had made the telephone call. They stood in my side of the room and looked at Mr. Reese, asleep in the other bed. I pretended to be asleep in my bed.

The nurse whispered, “I offered to have you meet with Mr. Reese in the chapel, but his daughter thought it would be too hard for him. Can you do it right here? Oh. I should tell you that Mr. Reese can’t talk. He can write on his pad, though.”

The priest, dignified in a black serge suit and black shirt with white collar, looked somewhat surprised. “Can’t talk? I don’t know if I can hear a confession in a room like this. It has to be private, of course.” Then, thinking a moment, he continued, “the man can’t talk; I guess that makes it private.”

“Yes, father. It would be private. Mr. Reese has been asking for a priest to hear his confession all day.” She whispered, “Plus, he is failing.”

The priest nodded his head in understanding as they approached the dying patient on the other side of the room. Mr. Reese woke as the nurse raised his bed. When he was sitting upright, the nurse moved the bedside table so that the old man was comfortable with his pen and the pad of paper. The priest pulled a chair close to Mr. Reese. I could see them silently look at each other, then both men looked at the nurse, who was straightening the bedclothes. She left them, walking to my side of the room. She stopped, and grasping the privacy curtain folded back against the wall, swept it on its overhead rail around my bed, concealing me from them.

I could still hear every rustle of the bedding and puff of air the cushion made when the priest shifted in the chair. Even the noises from the corridor, where lunch trays were being gathered and placed in large stainless steel trolleys didn’t mask the sounds of the two men.

“Your priest, Father Gallagher, is away in Portland. I’m Father Hartley, glad to fill in. Do I understand that you want me to hear your confession?”

I heard the sound of a pen scratching slowly on the paper.

“Oh, I see. You want this to be your final confession. I am sure that Father Gallagher will be disappointed that he can’t be here to minister to you, himself. I will do my best for you, indeed I will.”

“Confession is very healing, and opening your heart to God will make you feel better. You can write what you want to say to God, through me.”

Mr. Reese was writing steadily. The priest responded intermittently with a growing seriousness of tone.

“Did you strike her?”

The sound of the pen at work again.

“Did they fight with weapons?” The priest’s voice was now quieter.

The pen scratched an answer as Mr. Reese's gurgling sounds grew louder.

“Are you in this hospital now because she struck you?”

Silence. I could not see whether Mr. Reese was nodding or shaking his head.

“What did you do to show your anger?”

Mr. Reese’s humming rose as he replied in writing. I could hear his anguish and emotion even though he was not pronouncing words. The writing was fast and noisy. It sounded like pages flipping quickly.

“Jesus wants forgiveness in your life. You must forgive them, even though they meant you harm.”

I now heard a surge of grunts and attempts to verbalize his anger. The writing was loud.

Father Hartley kept speaking, “... and that by forgiving those in your family who harmed you, you will help them spiritually. God knows your motives were pure, and forgives you, Mr. Reese.”

I clutched the blanket to my throat as I listened. Even though the curtain was closed, I could hear his agitation and feel his anguish.

The nurse suddenly came into my part of the room. She hesitated at the drawn curtain.

“Oh, dear,” she whispered. “Mr. Reese’s daughter is back.” Then to herself, “I’ll just have them wait in the waiting room.” She glanced at me, and nodded that she would be right back.

My attention turned inward. To me, this is very hard to accept, and I suddenly wished that I could believe that some divine power was watching me and helping me heal, and that I could surrender personal responsibility of my actions and consequences of the factors in my life, so that God would take care of me. I would welcome the comfort of a greater power removing all unknowns and mysteries of my life and the lives I see about me. Wouldn’t it be something if the world actually was controlled by a benevolent supreme being that actually determined every outcome to be just and fair and good? I was weeping because I could not believe in that; although I really wished I could.

There was a pause on the other side of the curtain. I could hear the priest move in his chair. Mr. Reese was now breathing noisily. I could hear him sobbing.

Suddenly, the sound of the pen slowly scratching on the paper resumed.

“Empty handed, you say? You will not be empty-handed when you enter heaven. The Lord will welcome you to your heavenly home for the good works you have done in your life. You must reflect on the good you have done, and pray that the evil will be banished from your soul by repentance and your forgiving them who have hurt you.

“The spirit that moves us is divine. Even when we act in ways that cause harm, it’s for a reason that God knows. You must do what God moves you to do.”

The priest was speaking quietly, calming Mr. Reese with reassuring solemnness.

He continued, “The soul will grow. That is how we learn. It is God’s will that you learn and understand why you had to do what you did. God wants there to be forgiveness. Your soul is seeking that forgiveness. God wants you to forgive yourself. Only by forgiving can your soul be at peace, now, and hereafter. This moment, this confession, is when you tell God, through me, his minister, that you see those acts as part of a way to hide your soul no longer. It will be free, then, to join you in its perfect flight from fear. This is God’s will, and wisdom. This is the treasure your soul brings to heaven.”

For a moment it was quiet. The priest was still in his chair. Mr. Reese made no sound. The corridor outside the room was silent.

Father Hartley murmured a farewell to Mr. Reese. Suddenly, the curtain swept back enough for the priest to step through. He stood for a moment looking at Mr. Reese. He pulled the curtain closed, then turned toward the door and strode purposefully out. When he was gone, I clearly heard Mr. Reese crying. The bed creaked as his frail frame shook.

I heard him rip the pages from his pad one by one. Each page he then tore noisily into pieces.

Just then a young nurse I hadn’t seen before came to my bedside, pleased to announce that the representative from Guidant had arrived. A tall, beautiful woman, smartly dressed in a tan cashmere suit strode in carrying a portable computer. To make room for her computer, she stacked the Bible and other book off to one side and rolled the bed-side table next to my bed.

“Hi! I’m Ellie. I’m a field engineer for Guidant Corporation, the manufacturer of your defibrillator. Your doctor wanted to be certain that he had turned on your device properly this morning. I can check that out, right now.”

She was cheerful and reassuring as she apologized for taking so long to get to the hospital. She had started at four thirty in the morning from Portland, three hours away, and had spent most of the day in Bangor.

“I’m part of the surgery team when a defribrilator is implanted. I usually bring the device from the factory. I also bring the electrical leads that get affixed to the heart muscle. Today, I was in two operations. It’s been a long day. I hope they treated you OK here while you were waiting.”

She quickly got her computer going, plugged in the donut-shaped wand and placed it on my chest, over my defibrillator.

“This is a magnetic reader that will query your defibrillator’s memory. The computer shows what has happened since the last time it was queried. That was five months ago. It looks like it has not had to do anything. Apparently, your heart is getting stronger. Have a look.” Ellie turned the screen toward me so I could see a moving electrocardiogram of my own heart. She tapped a few on-screen buttons which instantly revealed that my defibrillator was, in fact, turned on correctly. “Everything is functioning perfectly,” she proclaimed.

Ellie expressed such an air of confidence in these devices - she told me it’s like having my own personal air bag - that I immediately felt a sense of comfort and assurance. She examined the implant site on my chest. “It looks just as it should,” she smiled. This was reassuring. I had worried that the unit might slide about inside my chest.

“You can get up and get dressed. I’ll tell the nurse to get your release papers ready. You are fine.”

She left me feeling so much better, in part because of her sunny disposition and authoritative knowledge.

Before I left the hospital room some few moments later, I looked over at Mr. Reese. His daughter was lounging in the chair, reading her magazine. Mr. Reese was lying shrivelled in his bed, looking weak and depleted. Shreds of yellow notebook paper were on the floor. He didn’t notice me, and I left without saying goodbye.

Outside it was dark and chilly. On the ride home, I reflected on the two authorities I had just experienced, the priest and the engineer. The priest, definitely an impressive professional man, quite earnest, served Mr. Reese by offering the wisdom of religious tradition and the spiritual power of forgiveness. Ellie, the enthusiastic engineer, confidently applied computer and medical science. Both treated their audience: Mr. Reese and I were each better in our way.

I would like to thank Janet King for invaluable assistance in the telling of this story.