“As you can see, I’m dying,” the professor said and then was silent.
The false chatter of how-are-you and where-do-you-work was sucked out of the room and we listened to the naked sound of our own breathing. Sensitivity Training 555 had begun with a challenge from our gaunt, six-foot-six, ashen-faced teacher to quit the trivial. His cancer-weary body sat at the bow of the table like a two-ton anchor, tipping the class to a depth we didn’t want to go. All words sunk into the silence.
The clock ticked, students coughed, footsteps passed in the hall, but the silence was driven by the raspy beat of his breath as if each might be his last so cut-the-bullshit, although he never said that. Or anything more. It was understood this class would model a therapy group. This class would learn by doing. This class would be his last.
Thirty minutes slowly became 60 under the sledgehammer of that silence. Sixty became 90 until the end of the class was almost in sight. With fifteen minutes left a brown-haired, twenty-something cleared his throat and said, “I’m having an affair with a patient at the hospital where I work.”
A brief stillness was broken by a raspy, “Yes?”
“It’s wrong,” the young man added, “but I can’t seem to stop myself.”
“Is she an adult? Is she a willing participant?” I asked, throwing out rationalizations like life preservers, but my questions were brushed aside with the professor’s glare and a wave. But the pattern was set: long silence, sudden confession, my attempts to rescue the confessor, and then the lurid details. The ex-nun had violated her vows. The elementary teacher had stolen money. The social worker was living a lie.
One night five or six weeks into the course, he turned on me in mid-rescue. “Why do you feel the need to dive in front of every confession? Who do you think you’re saving? What are you afraid of?” And for the first time I felt the eyes of the class on me, all the junior interrogators in touch with their mortality were tired of my bullshit or anyone else’s. “You’re not helping,” he said with a cold, kind honesty his pale eyes. “We have to save ourselves.”
The glare of all those eyes was an initiation, a baptism. I had nothing to confess, no secrets festering except my need to catch the fallen who didn’t want or need my help. That glare caused an odd euphoria. I leaned back in my chair, rested my elbows on the chalk tray behind me and answered the cross-examiners, trying to dig into the truth of my impulse to interrupt their confessions. The heat of confrontation felt like an opened window blowing away the urge to squirm, to admit to bad behavior I’d long ago owned up to, to identify so closely with the confessors that it was me I was attempting to save. I felt their discomfort more than they did. Like a plant absorbing the sun, I was still warm after it passed to the next confessor. And purged, I learned to be silent, to bear witness without interrupting or distracting, to accept what was going to be.
With five weeks left I raced out of the class one night and nearly bumped into our commander in the hall. He nodded. We walked past the other classrooms in silence. At the door, he said, “You’re a big Teddy bear, you know. Trying to save everyone.”
“And you,” I said, “seem to have a heart under that scowl.” He smiled and waved before stepping into the darkness. I climbed into my car, started the engine and paused to look over at him. In the dark shell of his car, he lit a cigarette. The flash of the match and the orange tip of the cigarette illuminated his skeletal profile: the grim reaper, a kind but dead-serious guardian of death.
Of course I wanted to stop him, scream out, put it out, dive in front of the oncoming train. I was shocked that he would still smoke and felt chilled by his brashness. But on my drive home, I came to understand. He was dying. What was the point of denying anything?
The next week he was gone. A red-faced professor with a brightly colored bow tie sat in his chair and told us he was dead. “I know this is awkward,” he said after we’d digested the news, “but you’ll want to get your credits. I’ll be taking over the course. There’s four weeks left. You could do some presentations or I could lecture.”
He stopped as we shook our heads in unison. “No,” said the ex-nun. “We need to finish what we started.”
“We can’t just forget what he trained us to do,” said the hospital aide.
“You can stay,” I added, “if you must, but we’d like finish the course the way he began it.”
And we spent the next four weeks in silence and confession with the red-faced man as witness until our tribute was complete. We swam naked in the quiet, bowed to its power and let the silence do its work.