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Lions Roar : November 2017
“What Chodo offered was an invitation to have a sublime experience,” she remembers, “one that could hold a spectrum of emotion—‘We’re going, here we go, we’re on the way, this is the nature of things, here we are together.’” She says that moment of acknowledgement was so full of life because it included the reality of death. “Something was begin- ning and we would now get through it knitted together, with John. All of the contradictions were in the room with us—love, dread, fear, doubt, patience.” Three weeks and three meetings with Chodo later, John died. Gersten–Vassilaros says it was an undeniably beautiful experience. “John was with it and there was no more faking it. Every- body was coming to say goodbye. And when he passed, we lit candles, sang songs to him we’d sung our whole life, and said prayers to him.” Chodo had advised the family on washing the body, and had given them a piece of fabric to wrap John in. “My husband was so thin that he was wearing my little son’s shorts and my middle son’s top. “We decided to bury him in those clothes and fabric,” says Gersten-Vassilaros. “These rituals were not familiar, but they meant something, because they were brought to us by someone who seemed so knowledgeable.” Gersten-Vassilaros says that it was the reaction of her sons that grounded her in the beauty found in loss. “The boys touched him, they kissed him, they loved him, they hugged him, they thanked him, they wailed like animals, holding his head. I kept thinking to myself, ‘Alexandra, you have everything you ever wanted right here and now.’ One of the unique things about the Zen Hospice Project was that all of the caregivers had a spiritual practice. The Maitri Hospice, founded by Issan Dorsey and the Hartford Street Zen Center, cared for gay men at the height of the AIDS crisis in San Francisco in the 1980s. “I couldn’t believe how activated they were at death by love. I knew instantly my boys were going to be okay. They had had a depth of experience that most people their age don’t have. They’ll never not know death. They’ll never not know love and gratitude expressed. Death is an opportunity for expression, and we made death part of life. Chodo allowed us to do that.” Gersten-Vassilaros now leads a writing group for healing and grief at NYZCCC. She says we resist moments when we think our hearts are going to break, but what really happens is that our hearts break open. “The beautiful, hard truth is that we can be present in the mystery of death,” she says. “We can sit in love and be okay. It doesn’t kill us. Intimacy doesn’t kill us. Death doesn’t kill us. It’s only the inability to express ourselves that feels so dreadful. That moment we had together as a family when John died, it’s going to help me when I die. It was such a beautiful bon voyage. ‘So long. See you soon. Love you so much.’” Simple Human Kindness: Frank Ostaseski In the 1980s, Frank Ostaseski saw that some people had nowhere to die. “In San Francisco, 30,000 people were diagnosed with HIV,” he says. “We were ground zero for the epidemic in the United States. Most traditional hospices at the time didn’t accept people with AIDS.” Ostaseski, then a home health aide and member of the San Francisco Zen Center, stepped in to help. “None of us knew what we were doing. We just started taking care of each other.” PHOTO(BELOWRIGHT)BYMORGANALEXANDERPHOTO(BELOWLEFT)COURTESYOFZENHOSPICE LION’S ROAR | NOVEMBER 2017 56