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Lions Roar : January 2012
SHAMBHALA SUN JANUARY 2012 26 breast cancer. At any age this is bad but in your seventies—even if she gets the best care and survives—it’s a big toll on an aging body. That evening I had told her how I loved her Broadway performance. “Did you really? Why didn’t you come backstage afterward to tell me?” “It never occurred to me.” I didn’t think you could go backstage. I loved her inno- cence and insecurity—and that her vulner- ability remained after her years of fame. Lying in bed thinking of all the chemo she’d endured, the visits to doctors, the exhaustion, blood tests, worry, hope, phone calls, antiseptic hospital, “It’s about death, isn’t it, Nat?” I say to myself. “Either way, no matter what, there is death at the end.” My mind flies back to ten years ago: a sawed-off shotgun at my neck, “Give me your purse,” the front door to the apart- ment building an arm’s length away, nine in the evening under the front porch light. I fooled him and gave him my athletic bag instead, clear and unafraid, but on the other side of the door, back in my small living room I was shattered, hysterical, terrified. All weekend I did not leave the apartment and Monday morning I had to appear at 5 a.m. in front of the Zen teacher I’d come back to the Twin Cities to study with. There was a plan to receive dharma transmission, permission to teach in my old Japanese teacher’s lineage. He had died ten years before. I was in my early fif- ties, still working out his death, thinking that if I was in his teaching lineage he’d be able to meet me on the other side, the silver death plane would land and voilà— he would be standing at Gate 57 wait- ing for me. It was naïve, stupid; I hadn’t thought it all through. Deeply entangled, I’d hauled my ass—and my furniture—up once again to the upper Midwest in my blind drive to work it out. And I’m glad I did. One early morning in a clear ordinary moment I realized I didn’t want dharma transmission. I didn’t need anything from this teacher in front of me. We were both free: no one could give me my own authority. I always felt great gratitude toward this teacher for the opportunity to discover that. But that morning, forty-eight hours after being assaulted, all I thought about was how I was going to dash to my car across the street, unlock it, and get in before another man with a shotgun grabbed me. My imagination was wild with armed young men at every corner at 4:30 a.m., waiting for tender Zen students. I made it to the car, the key in the igni- tion, squeezed out between a large Ford and a van onto the street, down the avenue to the zendo, and into the small dokusan room. I was off-the-charts shaking, telling him about what happened three nights before. He listened. “You are afraid of death.” I reeled, then fell through. All the other details dropped away. My body relaxed. Something made sense; something I could work with. And now ten years later on a New Year’s morning I thought about this again. I had gotten hard results from an early autumn blood test. Not terminal illness, but slowly—and it had probably been happen- ing for a long time—death was making its meandering way through my body. In the last months, though I managed to function well, underneath I was swimming in an abyss and could not find a foothold. I tried to imagine travel, things I’d never done before and wanted to do—I couldn’t think of a thing. What did I want to change? Nothing. What did I regret and wished I’d done differently? Usually I’m a great lamenter, but faced with the bold truth of my finite life, I caved into my past, almost accepting it all. Then sleepless nights would punctuate my dull submission, tor- menting me with failure in all directions. The still night, the click of the clock in the other room, knowing the next morning I was leaving on a trip, seemed to enhance my despair. All my life I’d been stalked by extremes but now the fire burned hotter, fueled by terror. In the past my most reli- able elixir had been to continue under all circumstances. But now the biting thought: someday no circumstances will exist. When my father died, I felt how very close death was; when my mother died, the veil was lifted. The illusion that my parents were a wall, a guard, a boundary between me and the end was over. Death