Zen training talks a lot about death. But one practitioner found that it doesn’t necessarily prepare you to face your own.
On a Wednesday morning, sitting in my old blue Volvo in a parking lot after just getting a facial—my cheeks redolent with cream, all pores clean—
I called the Cancer Center in Santa Fe, persuaded an oncologist to look up my chart. The oncologist I was assigned to was on vacation, and no one else was willing to give me the results of my blood tests. “Sure, I can do that,” he said. He came back on the line. “It’s positive for CLL [Chronic lymphocytic leukemia].”
“Really, it’s nothing. It’s at zero level. It’s nothing to worry about. It’s no problem. Just make an appointment next week, when your doctor is back in the office.”
I hung up and sat in the barren lot staring out at a brown hump of pale dirt. A white Acura pulled up next to me. I put the key in the ignition, moved into reverse, and slipped out of my spot.
What did I do the rest of the day? I don’t remember. The information, like a wild animal, followed me one hundred paces behind. I tried to ignore it, numb with refusal. This cannot be. This is not the way the world is.
And what way, exactly, is the world? The way I wanted it to be. Death a long-distance call. I wanted to deal with death at the proper time—in my eighties or nineties.
That night I called friends while I sat in my living room in my summer cotton pajamas. I told them of my diagnosis. As soon as we hung up, many ran immediately to Google to do research.
Eddie and Mary were different. They called from a restaurant where we often ate together. “We thought we’d bring over a chocolate pot.”
“No, I don’t want it, but come over.”
Mary repeated the offer. I normally loved that pudding.
“No, I’m really not interested.”
When they came over, the late August sun was slanting on the back porch. They sat on the couch, and I sat on a chair opposite. What was there to say? Mary, who is a nurse, reminded me that the cancer was at level zero.
“Yeah, but it won’t stay that way.”
In 1979 a fellow Zen student was killed in the streets of San Francisco at the age of 22. Katagiri Roshi’s admonition: “Human beings have an idea they are fond of—that we die in old age. That’s just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris’s death has come now.”
Chris was Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wrote the well-loved Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance. The book was based on a trip from Minneapolis to San Francisco the author took with his young son Chris on a motorcycle. It was the middle of November when Chris was stabbed in that fatal mugging. I stood out back of the zendo during a break in the retreat after Katagiri had made his announcement. I’d never before heard a pronouncement like Roshi’s—of course it was true. People died at all ages. I never forgot it until death came close to me.
Katagiri himself died young, at the age of 62, one year younger than I was now.
Zen training harped on death. We won’t last forever. Wake up. Don’t waste your life. But Zen’s urging seemed artistic, remote.
I was deeply aware that human beings were dying in Vietnam, then in Iraq, all over the world. One person’s death was my death. I could meditate and feel the poignant, exquisite melting of boundaries, the compassion for all beings, the deathless place of interconnectedness. That was all fine. Then cancer—a nugget of death—entered my individual body. I was suddenly not connected to anything, about to disappear—forever unknown, disregarded, lost in eternity.
All I heard from people who had survived cancer was how they were victorious. I know they meant to encourage me, but it left me lonelier. I needed to hear about being in the deep pool of fear before you swim out.
The first help I received was from a woman named Sue from Boston. In the fall I went on a three-day solo retreat at a just-finished set of cabins in La Madera, north of Santa Fe. She was there because she’d helped build them. She’d been a business executive on the East Coast and 15 years earlier had been diagnosed with breast cancer, both breasts. lt turned her life upside down. She left her job and eventually joined with an old friend from Antioch College to create these glorious cabins. Her husband and kids still lived in Boston, and she commuted back and forth.
As she helped me with my luggage, I told her how scared I was. Though her cancer had been many years ago, her old fear was accessible to her. She put down the box she was carrying and trembled, telling me about her first six months of dealing with it. “Every possible test came out positive.”
Her sharing helped. I didn’t feel so crazy that I was so shattered.
Twice a day I recited a lovingkindness chant and meditated on the pier she had built, jutting out into a pond full of ducks. The weather was sweater warm, the light low and still full. May I be attentive and gentle toward my own discomfort and suffering . . . May I receive others with sympathy and understanding . . .
When I left, I gave Sue a copy of the chant.
I tried to find the words to describe my emotions to two or three friends. Unless I talked, no one would have any idea what I was going through. The hard part was trusting that someone would understand, when I didn’t understand.