“Are you there, Father?” I could not keep my voice from cracking. The kneeler bit into my knees. I had never been so uncomfortable.
“Yes,” said a soft baritone from beyond the mess and curtain. “Would you like to confess?”
The air was thick as smog inside the tiny box. The smell of sweat and tears had long ago soaked into the pine, had gotten trapped in the thick black drape like old cigar smoke. I could feel the sorrow and shame of the thousands who had sat here before me; could feel the weight of their sins pressing in. But only mine was sitting on my shoulders.
“I need to,” I said. “Confess.” I swallowed the hard, biting off tears. There was lump in my throat and it felt like I had swallowed a football. “I don’t know how.”
“Been a while, huh?” said the priest. His deep voice was soft, quiet, but felt very near. “I get that a lot.”
“Actually. I’ve never—” my voice squeaked and broke off.
“Are you not Catholic?”
I shook my head, as if he could see me. He couldn’t, of course. Nor could I see him. That was for the best. I couldn’t had been able to bear looking him in the eye.
“No,” I said at last. “Not religious at all, really.”
“Strange place to wind up, if you don’t believe in God.”
“Didn’t say I don’t believe. Just not religious.”
“So you do believe? I can work with that.” He paused and I heard him breathing slowly, patiently. He was waiting for me. Letting me work this out in my own time.
My mind screamed at me. I had come here for a specific reason. There was goal. An endgame. Now I was too scared to speak the words. I sat there in that tiny wooden box not much larger than a pair of coffins, my hands and armpits sweating, my sour, rank breath pumping steadily into my nostrils. There was no noise beyond his breathing and mine, a soft, rhythmic sound that seemed to still the world around us. We were alone, not only in this confessional, but in the cathedral. I was sure of it.
Just get it over with. Just blurt it out and have it done.
But I could not. The words simply wouldn’t come. A hundred heartbeats came and went, and I hadn’t said a word.
Finally, the shadow beyond the curtain spoke. “I can’t make you speak, son. I don’t want to make you. But I’ll tell you this: confession is good for the soul. It cleanses us and brings us back to God.”
“Can it heal us?” I asked.
“Yes. Confessing your sins will heal your deepest wounds.”
“Not me,” I said. “Us. If I confess to you, will you forgive me?”
“Only God can forgive your sins, my child.”
“I’m not here to confess my sins, father.”
“Then why are you here?”
“To confess,” I said. “I’m here to tell you the truth.”
From beyond the veil came a sharp intake of breath. A gasp, a sigh. Silence.
Did he know? Had he figured it out. My heart beat fast now. Quick little jabs like a boxer laying into my ribs.
“Speak,” he whispered. His voice was heavy now, dragged down by years of sorrow.
“I hit someone,” I said. “Two years ago. A young man living this building.”
Once I’d said it, the rest was ready to burst out. “He was walking down the stone steps out front, half turned around, yelling.”
“Yelling at me,” said the man behind the divider.
“I was on the phone with my wife,” I said. “She was yelling, too. So was I.”
“His name was Timothy,” said the priest.
“He was my brother.”
“I read it in the paper,” I told him.
He sighed deeply once more. Then his shadow rose and moved forward. Somewhere nearby, a slow, methodical creaking filled the space between us.
I rose to my feet as the door to my side of the confessional opened. He was there, in his black vestments and white collar, dark hair combed, blue eyes rimmed in blotchy red. There were tears there, but no anger. No malice. Only a deep abiding sadness that seemed finally have a place to flow to, away from a heart that had carried it so long.
“You left,” he said, looking into my eyes.
I tried to turn away, but something in gaze held me. There was kindness there, mercy. It was as if he knew that I, too, had been suffering as I carried this burden, this guilt.
“You left him there to die and just drove off.”
“I…” I did pull away then. I couldn’t bare to meet his eyes as I spoke the next words. “I didn’t have insurance. There was no work. My shop had closed. I wasn’t supposed to be driving at all that night.”
There was no stopping my tears then. I was so ashamed. A man had died. He had died under the wheels of my car, bones snapping, innards popping like balloons, body tumbling and breaking as both axles passed over him. And I never stopped to help him.
The papers said he hadn’t died right away. He had been alive when the ambulance had arrived.
“I didn’t want go to jail,” I said, crying now. Hiding my face. “I was so scared.”
The priest said nothing. For the shortest of moments, I stood there with my head in my hands, quivering, weeping, afraid I’d collapse. Afraid he was going to call the police and turn me in. God knows, he should have. I would have deserved it. A man had died—this man’s brother was dead—because I had not been able to afford car insurance, because I had been out of work. He died because I was on my phone, arguing with my wife, because I’d been driving our car illegally while searching for a job.
I couldn’t justify it. Not any longer.
I should have stopped the car and tried to help the man I’d killed.
This confession, flawed though it was, was the amends I could offer to this grieving man who had lost his brother during a heated exchange. How awful to have your final words to a loved one be angry, hateful, bitter words.
I stood there, quacking and contemplating, my confession finished.
In the confines of that tiny cube of guilt and redemption, I felt the grieving priest move closer to me. I could have fell to my knees, hidden my face against the ground, but he would not let me.
When I couldn’t fight the weight any longer and was sure was going down, I felt his arms around me, lifting me up, drawing me near.
Our weak, trembling bodies pressed together, each with a head on the other’s shoulder, tears freely flowing, he held me, and I held him and together we wept for what was lost.
And maybe, in the midst of our sorrow, we were weeping for what was found.