I'd like to read a poem by Gary Snyder, in memory of Jessica's cousin, that's Steven Gerber, who died on Thursday, after a shockingly brief illness. He went from having some shortness of breath a couple of months ago, to receiving a diagnosis of stage-four lung cancer within a month, being on an experimental chemo trial, being placed in an incubator unable to breath, intubation, and within a month, completely unable to breath on his own, and passing away.
Jessica and Steven grew up together and have been close friends for more than 60 years. The family was well off enough that the two brothers, Steven and David, were able to pursue their own visions. The older brother, David, became a monk in the Korean lineage of Kwan Um, and has visited here a view times; some of you may have met him. Steven became a classical musician and composer.
When we say that this practice of ours is to resolve the great matter of life and death -- and how do we understand that or do we imagine what that could ever mean or look like -- we hear stories of old Zen masters who predicted the time of their own death, sat in full lotus, composed a poem, and then passed away, as if this is a model of being able to be in absolute control in the face of the most uncontrollable thing there is. Joko thought it was just sad that we turned even dying into something we had to try to do well. Steven's death, in a way, shows how it just comes upon us, preparation or not, and the poem that I will read by Gary Snyder is a very real picture of what death and dying is about. I only knew Steven for a relatively short time, but I feel Jessica's loss, and losses echo other losses. Reading this poem, in which Snyder describes the death of his wife, I feel echos of the death of my wife, Deborah, more than 20 years ago now, in a way that's sometimes so painful I'm not sure I can get through reading this poem. But that difficulty or not, pain is what I can offer in memory of Steven, and to Jessica, her loss.
By Gary Snyder
You don’t want to read this,
be warned, turn back
from the darkness,
-- about death and the
death of a lover -- it’s not some vague meditation
or a homily, not irony,
no god or enlightenment or
acceptance -- or struggle -- with the
end of our life,
it’s about how the eyes
sink back and the teeth stand out
after a few warm days.
breath, and I still wasn’t ready
for that breath, that last, to come
at last. After ten long years.
So thin that the joints showed through,
each sinew and knob
Shakyamuni coming down from the mountain
after all that fasting
looked plumper than her.
“I met a walking
skeleton, his name was Thomas Quinn” --
she could barely walk, but she did.
I gave her the drugs every night and we always
kissed sweetly and fiercely after the push;
kissed hard, and our teeth clacked, her
lips dry, fierce, she was all
bones, breath and eyes.
We hadn’t made love in eight years
she had holes that drained all the time
in her sides, new ones that came,
end game -- and she talked when she could.
Daughters, mother, sister, cousins, friends
in and out of the room. Even the
hardened hospice nurse in tears.
“Goodnight sweetheart, well it’s time to go.”
our duet, cheek to cheek,
for that last six weeks
She watched the small nesting birds
in the tree just outside.
Then she died.
I sponged her and put on a blouse
with sleeves to cover gaunt elbows,
a long gauzy skirt
like Mumtaz Mahal --
I was alone. Then they came.
One daughter cried out
“She’s a corpse!” and stood fixed
outside on the deck. It was warm.
The third day
the van from the funeral home came for her,
backing up close to the door,
I helped roll her into the sheets
slid on a gurney and wheeled to the car
and they drove up the rough gravel hill
our family group standing there silent
as I turned, held my breath,
closed my eyes to the sky.
Five days of heat and they called me,
just Kai and me, to come witness cremation.
It cost extra. Only the two of us
wanted to be there, to see.
We followed the limousine
through a concrete-yard with hoppers of gravel
through a gate beyond that
to an overgrown
sheet metal warehouse that once was a body-shop
to the furnace and chimney room,
it looked like a kiln for a potter,
there were cardboard coffins
stacked up empty around.
The young man at a desk and a table
filling out papers, sweating, as we
set out the incense and bell, the candle,
and I went to the light cardboard coffin
and opened the lid. The smell hit like a blow.
I had thought that the funeral home
had some sort of cooling like a walk-in
maybe they did. But it didn’t much help.
Her gaunt face more sunken, dehydrated,
eyes still open but dull, teeth bigger, her body,
her body for sure, my sweet lady’s body
down to essentials, and I placed two books on
her breast, books she had written,
to send on her way, looked again
and closed it and nodded.
He rolled it up close, slid the
box in the furnace, locked down the door,
like loading a torpedo
we burned incense and chanted the
texts for impermanence and all beings who have lived
or who ever will yet; things writ only in magic
and just for the dead -- not for you dear reader --
watching the temperature gauge on the furnace,
firing with propane, go steadily up.
So now we can go.
Maybe I know where she’s gone --
Kai and I one more time
take a deep breath
-- this is the price of attachment --
“Worth it. Easily worth it -- “
Still in love, being there,
seeing and smelling and feeling it,
worth even the smell.