Friday, July 27, 2007

Flashback: The Sober Discussion of What a Subdural Hematoma Is Plus—What’s This? A Priest Giving Me Last Rites Wearing a Green Dickey?

Fifty years of politics written for my kids and grandchildren].

After I was hustled out of my clothes and into one of those impossible hospital gowns that is tied in the back but outrageously open to viewers of one’s backside, I was placed on a bed in a tent-like makeshift “room” where I looked at my wife’s excited eyes. Then in burst all my children—the eldest, Tom, 27; Mary, 25, and her husband, parents of six; Michael, 24, and his wife parents of two; and Jeanne, 18, unmarried—and I wondered at the rapidly accelerating speed in this kaleidoscope…who notified them, how did they get here all together…but my concentration was diverted when a dark haired young man in surgical gown entered along with two others, identically attired.

“Hi, I’m Dr. Jerry Bauer. I’ll be operating on you tonight.”

Listen, I said, trying to rise up and lean on my elbow, did I give an okay for this to happen? Here I was at the Marriott hotel all ready to down my first scotch and soda and my wife rushes over, asks if I had tasted the drink and I said I didn’t and she says we’re going to the hospital immediately because you have a blood clot in the brain. But I’m damned if I ever gave an okay for an operation. Maybe I will but I’d like to have a second opinion.

“Sure,” he said. “You get not only a second but a third”—nudging his two solemn confreres who nodded silently. “Let me tell you a bit about this and it’s good your family is here as well. First, do we have to operate? A resounding yes”—my family nodded as well—“because what you have is known as a subdural hematoma. That’s a form of traumatic brain injury where blood collects between the dura or the outer protective covering of the brain and the arachnoid, the middle layer of what is known as the meninges. Subdural bleeding results from rips in veins that cross the subdural space. This bleeding causes an increase in intracranial pressure. I can go on and on but let me tell you that if we don’t operate—and in a relative hurry—you’re a dead one. Acute subdural hematoma which is what you nearly have has a high mortality rate and is a severe medical emergency.”

I said: Okay, operate.

“Thank you. Now you should know that while I think this operation will go well…and we’re going to take some more pictures shortly…what I’ve seen now leads me to tell you that several things can happen which can go wrong. One is that despite our best intentions and work, you’ll be a dead one.”


“Another could be that despite our best intentions and work you’ll be…impaired.”

A vegetable?

“Oh that’s too drastic. Impaired, limited.”

A liberal Democrat?

He laughed heartily. “God, I like you! The third possibility which I assure you I will deliver with the utmost of my ability is that you will recover totally. Do you have any questions?”

None of you, doctor—or your assistants. But I do want to go to confession. Is there anything like a Catholic priest in this Lutheran hospital?


You are also entitled to know that my wife and I have picketed this hospital because it sanctions abortion. That doesn’t actually endear me to the medical staff, I would warrant.

“Matters not to me. I’m a Jew and not a Lutheran so I don’t take it personally. No, you have made me laugh so I shall save your life. And when patients can joke at times like this, I automatically look at my colleagues like this two here and say, `let’s do our damndest for this guy.’ As we will. I understand you’re a Republican. We need as many of you as we can so I will be doubly sure to pull you through.”

A youngish man stuck his face through the curtain and said, “You asking for me?” He had a roman collar but I noted alarmingly a green dickey. The dickey is the cloth that runs under the collar in place of a shirt. A colored dickey is usually the mark of a Protestant-=either High Church Episcopal or Lutheran.

What’s with the green dickey?

“Gee, I am a priest. Father Keating, Passionist. Our order was founded by St. Paul of the Cross. Tell me, do we all have to be so everlastingly the same on everything? I like a green dickey because I’m Irish. I guarantee you I am in the Roman Catholic club even though I wear a green dickey. Now…” to my family, “if you will excuse us I’ll hear your father’s confession and you can come back soon. Or I think it will be soon.”

Depends on how long a tale of woe I have for you to forgive.

My wife said: “We’ll be back soon, Father.”

The classic biblical mention of anointing occurs in the Letter of James, a cousin of Jesus. At Trent the sacrament of anointing was recommended by James. `Is anyone among you sick? Let him bring in the presbyters of the Church and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord.” After the priest in the green dickey heard my confession, he conferred conferring the oil on my forehead while reciting prayer, the hands while reciting prayer. As he was doing so I was recalling the classic case that was discussed in my theology class on Aquinas years ago: the case being of an old seaman, dying in a house of prostitution who called for a priest. The priest arrives and finds the old man in the last stages of a massive heart attack. The priest bends down and listens to the old man’s gutterally whispered confession. It appears his prime sin was carnality and that he had expended it on many women. The priest said, “are you sorry for all these women?” Probably the wrong way to put the question—but there it was.

The old man gasped, “sorry for all but one woman many years ago. Her name was Mae. I cannot be sorry because I loved her. I’m not sorry. I should be but I am not.”

What to do? The old man was expiring and the rules of catechetic study mandate that contrition should be expressed for all sin and expression of firm purpose of amendment before absolution can be granted. Firm purpose of amendment would be easy because the old guy was over 80 and dying. But if he continued saying he could not muster up sorrow for this one particular babe who might be dead or age 80 also—what to do?

This Aquinas answered, of course. The question to ask the penitent is: “Are you sorry you are not sorry?” The priest asked it; the old man sighed and said “yes.” Fulfillment required and absolution was granted, eighteen minutes before the old man was ushered into the throne room of the Lord.

I had no experience like that and was truly, really and truly, sorry, motivated by at first what Aquinas has defined as imperfect contrition…the terrifying fear of dying un-contrite and going to hell for all eternity…but then as I bit my lip and prayed for what Aquinas postulated as perfect contrition…that feeling I have rarely fully mastered since because I am so unforgivably shallow…the feeling that apart from the loss of heaven and the pains of hell because I had offended God Who is all good and deserving of all my love. Then comes the easy part: I firmly resolve with the help of your grace to confess my sins (which I have just done), to do penance and to amend my life—amen or so be it.

Then he took oil out of a vial, blessed by either him or a bishop and anointed my forehead while he said prayers, then my hands. I must confess I was still thinking of jokes (probably because I was scared out of my wits)…thinking of the old man who had been so mean he had not a friend in the world and who was dying and the priest who anointed him asked: “Do you renounce the Devil and all his works?”

The old man looked up at him and said, “well, frankly, Father, at this stage of the game I don’t want to alienate anybody.” It was weird that I was thinking that; sacrilegious too, but I was. Then I shut my eyes and ears and bit my lip hard to avoid sillyness and distractions as this as I prayed: please let me live. I’ve got this wife and kids to continue to love and I may be egotistical but they need me and I need to stick around here rather than be off with You. I’ll promise to go off with You another time.”

“That’s all,” said Father Keating. “I’ll pray for you. I’ll look in on you after the operation. That’s a promise.”

To Jerry Bauer: “You can come back now, Jerry!”

Jerry was gone to the operating room. They wheeled me over there, looking up at the rows of fluorescent lights rolling by. When we got in, he peered down at me. He looked dreadfully tired and stifled a yawn.

I asked: What time did you get in here today?

“Six a.m.” I looked at my watch: 11:10 p.m. He noticed it on my wrist.

“Hey, what the hell! You still have your watch on? Take it, nurse.”

Easy, I said. It’s a Timex.

He grinned and looked at the nurses. “See what I mean?”

Then all was black.


  1. Tom-

    Lincoln after delivering his remarks at Gettysburg received silence. I doubt that you will receive many comments on today's masterpiece.

  2. Thanks for a great read!