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Lions Roar : November 2017
The woman started throwing things when Koshin arrived. “She was yelling ‘GET OUT!’, her face contorted with rage. I was lightly ducking and just looking at her. When she didn’t have anything more to throw, she said, ‘What are you still doing here?’ I said, ‘Well, I’m really curious about what makes you so enraged.’ She paused, then said, ‘You want to take a seat?’” Koshin discovered the woman had spent her life taking care of her parents. After they died, she was diagnosed with stage four ovarian cancer and her husband left her. “Of course she was angry!” says Koshin. “We got to explore that she had never really been able to be angry. It was actually enlivening to her, the feeling of anger. It felt good. “At the end, she sat up in her bed with fists to the sky and was like, “AUGHHH!!’ And then she died. It was magnificent. Sometimes that is a beautiful death. It’s important to realize the range of what a good death can be, because it’s not always lace pillows and very peaceful.” It is Buddhist practice that prepares Koshin to be open to such moments. “One of the things I love about Zen in par- ticular, and why it’s so well-suited for this work, is that it’s a completely experience-based practice, not belief-based.” After studying at NYZCCC and now working as the director of spiritual care for an Upstate New York hospice, Gary Dogun O’Connor agrees: “Now I know experientially that the possi- bility for loving action is always present, under even the most horrendous circumstances. We may not know how to do it, but the possibility is always present.” Knowing yourself and being present can also mean knowing when you must step back, Chodo says. “For example, I’ve had a lot of experience with chaotic environments. But someone who hasn’t had that much experience with chaos may say, ‘This is too chaotic for me, or, there’s too much anger in this room.’ Skillful means and loving attention can mean realizing that I’m not the right person for this. It’s not always about how to stay there.” When facing situations around death, adds Koshin, “You don’t know how things are going to unfold. It’s the one thing that’s totally true.” Love in Loss: Alexandra Gersten–Vassilaros “THE BIRTH OF SO MUCH LOVE happened right at death,” says Alexandra Gersten–Vassilaros, a playwright and Pulitzer Prize finalist. By virtue of her profession, she was especially sensitive to not having the right words to express what was happening when her husband, John, was dying of colon cancer in 2015. Their three sons, aged fourteen, eighteen, and nineteen, were looking to her for guidance. But no one wanted to mention the “d-word.” “We didn’t want to approach it,” she says, “because John wasn’t approaching it. We were all holding on; we were resisting. John felt so guilty to be that sick. He’d always been such a hero, and now he was leaving his family and his boys.” A friend suggested that Gersten–Vassilaros contact Chodo. Although she was initially resistant, she was exhausted, frightened, and yearning for someone to lead them through these unknown waters. Though not a practicing Buddhist, Gersten–Vassilaros reached out to him. “The minute I met Chodo, I felt infinitely safe and provided for. I knew that his gentleness and strength were exactly what my husband would respond to,” she says. Chodo first spoke to John alone. Chodo has never revealed to Gersten–Vassilaros what they talked about, but she saw a change in John after that. “There was a lot of grief in me, and I would beg him to stay, saying, ‘How am I going to be okay, how will I do this?’ And he’d say, ‘You will, you will.’ Then one day he said, ‘Not my problem anymore.’ This is a person who was Mr. Fix-It, so it was great for him to say that, because it was true. I think Chodo gave him that language—that’s nothing he ever would have said before then. “Chodo gave John permission to die. Then we invited in the boys to talk, all of us. Chodo said, ‘It’s time. It’s time to believe that this passing will occur.’” Gersten–Vassilaros says Chodo opened their hearts when “that which isn’t spoken” suddenly was spoken. Alexandra Gersten–Vassilaros says no one wanted to say the “d-word” when her husband John was dying. Below: John with their sons Tonio, Stefano, and Luka. PHOTOBYSEANKERNANPHOTOCOURTESYOFNYCZCCC LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2017 55