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I went down to the hospice diagonally across from the San Francisco Zen Center of Page Street today to say goodbye to Philip Whalen. A staffer at the hospice told me Philip's body was in the room at the top of the stairs. His name was on a sheet of paper on the door, in what looked like his distinctive calligraphic handwriting. I took off my shoes before I went in. A hospice worker and three Zen students were there, sitting zazen quietly as I entered.
I last saw Philip eight years ago, when I finished my five-month term as his personal assistant, reading to him, keeping him company, and walking him to lunch several days a week. I felt guilty about not visiting him in his long years of illness, but our time together had been so complete, and had ended in such a perfect way, that I never felt like I needed to see him again. We had done our business. He used to make jokes about his "mountaine belly," a phrase from Boswell's life of Johnson, one of his favorite books. When I saw his corpse, I was shocked at how small he seemed. He looked little, lying under his brown robes on the narrow bed, his right hand clutching a Buddhist mala. His face was inclined slightly to the left, and eyes were half-shut, as if he were meditating; under the lids, I could see little wedges of pale blue. He was smiling slightly. Someone had placed three bright orange flowers at his left shoulder.
One of the women sitting in the room invited me to offer incense. There was a profound stillness, and the funny thought came to me that when you are in a room with a corpse, the most important thing in the room is always the corpse. I sat and meditated, drifting in and out of counting my breath and thinking about Philip, and wanting to look at him. Sickness, old age, and death had somehow distilled and refined his features, but he also looked like he was also starting to blur into his surroundings, as if he was evaporating or might start to melt into the bed. He looked very dead, like a wax model of a human being. His face was yellow. The blood was pooling in the back of his skull, turning his huge ears and the back of his neck a dark reddish-purple. The tips of the fingers of his left hand were slightly green. Sitting with him was not like sitting in the room with a statue of Buddha, but with a Buddha. It was so obvious, looking at him, that we are empty, and that what we are, while we are alive, is what was lying on the bed, but with some vital, inexplicable, and temporary fire inside us.
A hand-written broadside of Philip's "Tara" poem was on the wall. The sound of buzzsaws and hammering from construction in the neighborhood came in the windows. It occurred to me that the noise would have annoyed him, but he was funny about such ever-present daily vexations: he expected them as part of the goofy universe he found himself in.
At one point, two of the women in the room got up to chat in the hall, and I joined them, which broke the ice. When the three of us were alone with Philip in the room a few minutes later, the meditative silence yielded to stories. Mostly they were stories about food. How Philip was always disobeying his doctors' dietary regulations. How he had hamburgers smuggled in when he was in the hospital. How just a week ago, he got someone to fry him up a steak. How he loved eating cheap, greasy Chinese food drenched in hot chili oil. The hospice worker said she had once gone to a Chinese restaurant with him and enumerated the most disgusting sounding things on the menu, like tripe, because Philip was likely to order them. He did. How he loved to drink Scotch, which he called his "nerve-tonic." How he loved papayas and melons... The conversation seemed in danger of extending itself into an infinite rhapsody of delicious food names, Whitman in the kitchen. A young woman meditating on the other side of the bed was suppressing giggles. Before he died, Philip told some Zen students that he wanted to be laid out on frozen raspberries.
I brought my face very close to his face, and looked into the face of the Death-Buddha. When I was his assistant eight years ago, I always used to want to kiss him, and when I rubbed his shaven head, he would purr contentedly. So I put my right hand on the top of his skull and brought my lips to his forehead. Though my mind knew his body was going to be cold, my hand and my lips were still surprised by it. He was colder than the air around him. He was colder than a stone.
Then the hospice worker told me to place my hand over his heart, because there was still some warmth there. I was skeptical, and moved my hand up and down over his body, but there definitely seemed to be a little pool of warmth over the middle of his chest. "Big heart," she said. "He's almost gone. It's like a turkey-tester. The heart chakra is a good place to leave your body from." What is leaving? Who knows?
Then a Zen student and physician, Rick Levine, came in the room to sit. He recognized me from when we were at Zen Center together 20 years ago. "You're that writer guy, right?" I told him I was. "You wrote a little self-published book called The Last Beatnik, right?" I hadn't, but I appreciated his effort to recover a thread between us. Suddenly, talking about things I had or had not written seemed ridiculous, like gossiping in front of a mountain. I looked up at the mountain, bowed, and walked downstairs.
©2002 by Steve Silberman
Steve Silberman is a contributing editor at Wired
magazine. His articles have appeared in Wired, The
New Yorker, Time, and many other national
publications, and he is the co-author of Skeleton
Key: A Dictionary for Deadheads.
See more of his work at his Web site.
Photograph by Nancy Davis
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