It isn’t easy to offer spiritual comfort to a dying man when you can’t stop thinking about yourself. As Shozan Jack Haubner learned, sometimes you just have to fake it.
The afternoon I was scheduled to meet the dying man, my laptop got stolen. The crime felt oddly intimate, as though a burglar had snuck into my bed one night and, without waking me, removed the underwear from my body—with his mouth. I cried a little in the parking lot of Ralph’s grocery store, where the thief had broken into my Honda during the ten minutes that I was inside buying flowers. Fortunately, I had all my files backed up on a thumb drive. Unfortunately, I kept the thumb drive in the same bag as my Mac, so the thief got it too.
But wasn’t that just like me? To leave the thumb drive in the same bag that I carry the computer around in? What the hell sense does that make?
It was at least a hundred degrees outside. The heat felt like a vice slowly crushing my skull from every direction. I’d recently said good-bye to cigarettes and was sucking on nicotine lozenges like candy and compulsively talking to myself. Over half of my next book, three years of a daily journal, a rough draft of a novel, one very terrible screenplay about a black rapper who goes into the deep South in whiteface, dozens of completed or nearly completed essays and short stories—nearly half a million words. Gone. As I mentally prepared to visit the dying man, I felt like I was dying a little too. That laptop contained a portion of myself that I would never get back.
With such a key part of my identity now gone, I felt a compulsion to prove my existence. I couldn’t just sit peacefully, like the Zen priest I am, while waiting to report the crime at the police station. I had to whip out my iPhone and check my email. Then I checked Facebook. Then I checked my book ranking on Amazon. Then, because a sufficient amount of time had passed—about ten seconds—I started over and checked my email again, my thumbs banging the screen like a kid on a sugar high pounding on a piano with two hammers.
How can a Zen priest be so self-absorbed and distractible? Perhaps meditation has simply honed my awareness to the point where I can clearly see how imperfect I am but has in no way helped me change this fact. What a horrible practice! You know it’s bad when you’re blaming your meditation practice for the stress in your life. But I was heartbroken over all the work I’d lost and enraged at the universe for being chronically unfair, so I gave my better angels the finger and searched for affirmation on the Internet instead of powering down my phone, taking a deep breath, and accepting the fact that something dear to me was probably gone forever.
I met with a handsome young police officer who told me in so many words that my laptop was, for all practical purposes, on the missing person of Jimmy Hoffa, and that when they found him, I’d get my stolen words back. Then I set out for the medical center where, I imagined, the sick man was putting off dying until he could have a few words with me. The heat and the nicotine from the lozenges were giving me the kind of headache where your skull feels like the drum set in a Swedish death metal band. My breath raced as I phoned the desk nurse from the clogged 10 freeway.
“Please let the family know I’m running late.”
There was a long silence. I’d called twice already to delay. “Hurry,” she said. “He’s not going to make it through the night.”
“Sorry, sorry, I’m stuck in traffic,” I said.
In reality, I was lost. I typed with my thumb while hitting the brakes and gas, and my iPhone told me where I needed to go. I need an app for spiritual guidance, I thought. I can’t even let go of my laptop. How can I look into the dimming eyes of a dying man and tell him that he needs to let go of this life?
I searched the radio for inspiration. I was psyching myself up instead of calming down. Bad idea. Nobody wants to look up from their deathbed and see a priest smiling down at them like he just did a line of coke. I punched seek over and over and got The Bee Gees’ “How Deep Is Your Love.” Fantasy time: I imagined walking into a hospital room filled with Taiwanese people. Slow motion, my robes flowing behind me. I put my hand on the shoulder of the dying man’s wife and simply erase her sadness with my smile. I hug the old grandmother. “You white but you okay!” she cries, and the whole family bursts into laughter. The dying man cracks a smile too. I take his hand and his eyes open. The wife’s lower lip trembles. “He…he hasn’t moved in seven days. But you…your presence…it moved him. Literally!”
Life went silent as I turned off the Honda in the medical center parking lot. Golfers swung silver clubs across the street; an orange grove sprawled for miles below me, speckles of fruit bedazzling the verdant valley. There were tears in my eyes thanks to the Bee Gees ballad, which was still buzzing through my nervous system like too much coffee. How deep is your love, how deep is your love, I really need to learn…
I put my head on the steering wheel. I was in no way ready to face a dying man.
We once hosted a workshop at the monastery for recovering alcoholics. I befriended a philosophical nurse who rightly described herself as “beastly fat and very angry.” I confessed to her that I hated being a monk. She confessed to me that she hated being alive. She went on: “Finally one day I realized—I am not obliged to try and enjoy this life of mine. I do not have to have a reason to go on living. I do not have to be a hero. All I have to do is suit up and show up.”
Many are the moments when a layperson shows me how to be a monk. They nonchalantly offer these nuggets of diamond-tight, luminous wisdom as though they’re telling me something that I already know, and I nod sagely as though I do, while thinking, “I’m going to use that.”
Suit up and show up. I thought of this as my fingers trembled, threading my priest’s belt into a knot over my koromo robe. The hospital bathroom was like a green room where I was preparing for a performance, only I had no idea what my lines were. I studied myself in the mirror—thankfully, it assured me that I was a monk. But I stared a little too long, and for a split second I could have sworn that I glimpsed a frightened fraud beneath the frock.
Sandy, the large, angry nurse, told me that she often had to force herself to play the role of compassionate caregiver. “Death is all around me in the hospital, but it always seems like the wrong people are dying. The assholes hang on to the bitter end,” she explained. “People think that nurses just automatically give a damn, like it’s in our genes. Let me tell you something—having the will to refrain from putting a pillow over the face of some bitter, dying bastard who also happens to be your patient is actually something you have to work at.”
“It’s just like being a monk,” I said. “You fake it till you make it.”
“No,” she said, raising her eyebrow, a hairless slash of blue. “You fake it till you’re not faking it anymore. It’s called trying.”
What a sight I must have made, stepping into the hospital room bald-headed in what appeared to be a long black dress with sleeves big enough to lift me off the ground with the right gust of wind. There were four Taiwanese people in the room, and three of them looked up at me. A quarter of the room was sick and dying, which is a large percentage and accounted for the leaden atmosphere. I knew that I was the headliner. What I didn’t know was that there was an opening act, and she wanted my job. Tall and in her mid-fifties, her expression was permanent and hard to describe, as though she’d told a plastic surgeon, “Make me look like someone who has just heard a joke that she doesn’t understand.” Not surprisingly, she was gripping a Bible.
Her considerably shorter husband stood behind her, glaring at me as though he hoped I might use my Buddhist black magic to simply vanish off the face of the earth in a puff of sulfurous smoke. He was holding his wife’s hand, and she was holding the hand of an alert, shockingly young woman with the flushed pink face of a mother in labor, who was in turn holding her sick husband’s unresponsive hand. He was a blur on the bed in the corner of my eye. I could not quite look at him yet, for his wife seemed to want something from me. She could not reach out and shake my hand, weighed down as she was by Christianity on the one side and Death on the other. Like me, she seemed to be playing a role—the role of hostess at her husband’s deathbed.
When the tall woman saw my robes and my big bald head, her eyes went wide and she started gabbling furiously. Everyone’s eyes closed, then opened, and there was some post-prayer conversation, full of tired smiles, hugs, and good-byes. I understood nothing of what they said, but all deathbed conversation is the same. Really straightforward, often mundane things—hospital food or plans for the evening—are discussed with a whispering intensity reserved for the White House War Room. People are exhausted and completely vitalized at the same time. Nothing like death to bring a little life to the room.
Then it was just me, the wife, and the dying man. “Sorry about that. We were Christian. Five years ago we converted to Buddhism,” she said, rolling her eyes. I nodded. If there’s anything that intense Christians are useful for, it’s helping non-Christian strangers bond.
I took a wooden mallet and a mokugyo drum the size of a grapefruit out of my backpack. I passed the wife a chant book. The desk nurse had told me that the wife requested two things, a prayer and a blessing for her husband. “Zen monks don’t really do either of those things,” I tried to explain. Chanting was my substitute for a prayer. I didn’t know yet what my substitute for a blessing would be.
I watched the wife sink into her uncomfortable chair in a kind of dead-relaxed stupor. Then she began sobbing. I wanted to get up out of my own uncomfortable chair and hug her, but I felt weird about doing this in front of her ailing husband, as though he might suspect that I was trying to poach her right before his dying eyes. And who knows, maybe the thought crossed my mind. During times of sublime anguish, I sometimes can’t distinguish intense feelings of love from sexual urges.
I still have an image in my head of this young woman sitting up impeccably straight, her hands folded in her lap over her fashionable black pants, shedding, it seemed to me, the perfect number of tears, right down to the very last one. They streamed down her face and throat and turned the white collar of her blouse gray.
She chanted like a champ and we made our way through the Heart Sutra, the Dharani of Compassion, and the ten-page, sleep-inducing excerpt from the Lotus Sutra. We both faced her husband, but I still hadn’t really looked at him yet. After I brought the chanting home with a warbling flourish, the wife stood up. We were on either side of the dying man. Her cheeks and eyes were glistening and she seemed refreshed, like the sky after a good, quick rain.
“I will introduce you to my husband.”
For the first time I really took him in, and I felt the truth of the phrase My heart goes out to you. He had the face of a child. His young body was twisted, his spine arched, so that it looked like he was gouging into the bed with his shoulder blades. It was as though you’d swung a baseball bat into his back a week ago, and he was still frozen in that initial contortion of pain. His eyes were wide open. There was nothing drugged about them. Everything else about him looked drugged, but not those eyes.
I once cornered a huge wood rat in a bathroom. As I bent over with a bucket to try and capture it with the intention of then throwing it into the toilet and flushing it into oblivion, I looked into its eyes. They looked back. The body of this little animal was quivering, its tiny shoulders shaking in fast forward, and in its eyes I saw the pure sentient terror of a creature the instant before its life is snatched away.
I saw that same animal terror in this man’s eyes.
I had come to the blessing part of his wife’s request. I needed to do something. I took his hand out from under the blanket. It was limp and lukewarm; life was leaving it. I said his name and put my hand on his chest. I kept looking in his eyes, but I couldn’t find purchase there. There was no bottom to his suffering.
His wife was weeping openly now. There was something happening here, and I finally realized what it was. I was giving him his last rites. No one would come after me; there was no other priest waiting in the wings. I was the one they had contacted.
Me. The guy who still had “How Deep Is Your Love” running through his head.
“Fake it till you’re not faking it anymore.”
So I held his hand, lowered my head, closed my eyes, mentally collapsed every last bit of distance between us—as best I could, anyway—and I wished his butchered and bleeding soul well. You better believe I said a prayer for him. I sent it out into the universe through our two bodies. And yes I wanted it to be over, because I was ashamed that I might be doing it wrong and embarrassed that his wife was watching me and possibly judging my sincerity. But I held his hand tightly, for both of us. I looked in this dying man’s eyes and I saw myself.
We somehow became equals. I found a point of connection, and I held him there.
I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I felt my whole face reborn as just this crumpled, ruined mask. I could hide nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate that I was crying a little, but it’s not like I could help it. Something had happened in that desperate and intimate moment. We both held hands and let go together.
The wife seemed happy and totally done with me, but in a good way. We made some small talk about reincarnation in the hallway outside the room. Then she slipped me a small golden envelope, which I opened in the parking lot while the sun set behind the marvelous orange orchard below me. There was a hundred-dollar bill inside, which I used to buy a very large, meat-based dinner, chased by a pair of nicotine lozenges.
As I drove home, I remembered Dr. Haley, a dear friend of my Zen teacher who’d died six months earlier. The funeral home was in the middle of the desert I was driving through just then, a brand-new building in a scorching, windswept valley, like real estate from the planet Mars.
The sufficiently sepulchral mortician at the front desk had pointed us to a dark corridor that led to a side room with a faint glow. I figured that we were supposed to wait there until they took us in the back to visit the body, at which point I planned to excuse myself for the bathroom and then repair to a non-windy corner of the building outside for a much-needed cigarette. But when I pushed my teacher and his wheelchair around the corner and into the small, bare room, there was—to my utter shock—a dead body in a big black box. It was Dr. Haley-like, but it was not him at all. The candlelit creature inside the casket was a thing unto itself, the embodiment of the natural phenomenon known as death.
In real life, Dr. Haley had towered. In real death, he seemed about three feet shorter. This is what happens when you drain the fluids from a body, I thought. We’re 60 percent water, after all. His stiff white hair was spazzing out at odd angles, like the plastic hair of an old doll that hasn’t been played with for decades. The back of his skull was propped up by a steel post instead of a pillow. Everything about him looked awkward—he was a Dr. Haley impostor—everything, that is, except for his face.
I wheeled my teacher right up to the very edge of this silent spectacle, just as I’d done when we visited the Grand Canyon together. My teacher’s assistant removed a tiny mokugyo from her tote bag and lit a stick of incense. We chanted the Heart Sutra. It was as though we were singing a song of reverence before some miracle of nature, a streaking comet or an animal giving birth. Unlike every other human face I’ve ever looked into, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this one. Living human faces register nearly endless variations on the themes of suffering and discontent, but Dr. Haley’s face stayed the same from instant to instant.
It was absolutely silent, and so was I.
As though to confirm everything I was feeling, my teacher’s attendant turned to me and said, “He looks so peaceful.”
I said, “He’s done running,” and she seemed to know what I meant.
The mountain was dark and silent when I returned to the monastery after my visit with the dying man. A veil of mist inked the footpaths black. I sat down on the only rock where I get wireless Internet access, popped a lozenge, took out my iPhone, and fed my addiction to nicotine and attention. Looking into that screen, waiting for the pages to load, waiting for something, was like looking into the dying man’s eyes—there was nothing to grab on to. It was bright and bottomless.
I looked up into the vast night sky, so silent and sure of itself. Nothing new about it in all the years I’ve known it, yet it only gets more interesting. Later, tossing and turning in bed, I was still compulsively searching, this time inside my own skull, searching for something that wasn’t fleeting, that wouldn’t perish, that I could hold on to forever, even in deep sleep.
But you cannot Google your own soul.
Hmm, I thought, that’s good. I should tweet that. Right now, before I forget!
Why? Was it because I had something genuine to share or simply because I wanted to be heard? Did I tweet, and write, as an offering to others or to shore up my feelings of permanence and relevance against a cosmos that is like a great thief who takes everything in the end, all our words and deeds? The loss of my laptop was just the beginning, and minor in comparison to what the dying man and his wife were losing, and which we will all lose sooner or later.
Yet I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I tried to picture the face of the guy who filched my MacBook Air, and my stomach turned and my mind puked a little. He had all my words. What was he doing with them? Perhaps the real truth was that I did not fear death so much as I feared leaving this planet without leaving my mark on it in some way, dying without accomplishing anything, as though I’d never existed at all. And now this toothless crystal fiend was out there somewhere, erasing my legacy!
But if something can be taken from you, was it ever truly yours to begin with? It occurred to me that the harder we search for something permanent in this world, the more ephemeral and disposable are the things we find, and the more we find ourselves simply searching for the sake of searching, moving for the sake of moving.
We are a culture running away from death.
Maybe, in the end, death is the only thing that cannot be taken from us; maybe it’s the only thing we can truly call our own. When I held that dying man’s hand, closed my eyes, and disappeared into the diminishing warmth of his palm, I felt for a brief instant like we were owning our imminent deaths together, and that he was blessing me as much as I was blessing him. It was nothing like my earlier fantasy, where I held his hand and his eyes popped open, full of life. Instead, we held hands and died a little together, and so came to resemble Dr. Haley, who was done searching. Maybe that’s why his face was so peaceful. Like the night sky, it was fathomless, his peace every bit as deep as the suffering in the dying man’s eyes.
How deep is your love, how deep is your love—that song was still trapped in my head, only now my inner Barry Gibb seemed to be asking for an answer. Not so deep, I told him. I crave immortality, I’m attached to things and ideas like my stolen laptop and those lost words, and I really need a smoke. But I’ll keep faking it until I’m not faking it anymore, I thought, drifting into a bottomless sleep from which I would awaken tomorrow, but the dying man would not.
I’ll keep trying.