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Buddhadharma : Winter 2014
winter 2 0 1 4 buddhadharma: the Practitioner’s quarterly 61 my hand on his chest. I kept looking in his eyes, but I couldn’t find purchase there. There was no bottom to his suffering. His wife was weeping openly now. There was something happening here, and I finally real- ized what it was. I was giving him his last rites. No one would come after me; there was no other priest waiting in the wings. I was the one they had contacted. Me. The guy who still had “How Deep Is Your Love” running through his head. “Fake it till you’re not faking it anymore.” So I held his hand, lowered my head, closed my eyes, mentally collapsed every last bit of distance between us—as best I could, anyway—and I wished his butchered and bleeding soul well. You better believe I said a prayer for him. I sent it out into the universe through our two bodies. And yes I wanted it to be over, because I was ashamed that I might be doing it wrong and embarrassed that his wife was watching me and possibly judging my sincerity. But I held his hand tightly, for both of us. I looked in this dying man’s eyes and I saw myself. We somehow became equals. I found a point of connection, and I held him there. I closed my eyes, and when I opened them I felt my whole face reborn as just this crumpled, ruined mask. I could hide nothing. I wasn’t sure if it was appropriate that I was crying a little, but it’s not like I could help it. Something had happened in that des- perate and intimate moment. We both held hands and let go together. The wife seemed happy and totally done with me, but in a good way. We made some small talk about reincarnation in the hallway outside the room. Then she slipped me a small golden envelope, which I opened in the parking lot while the sun set behind the marvelous orange orchard below me. There was a hundred-dollar bill inside, which I used to buy a very large, meat-based dinner, chased by a pair of nicotine lozenges. As I drove home, I remembered Dr. Haley, a dear friend of my Zen teacher who’d died six months earlier. The funeral home was in the middle of the desert I was driving through just then, a brand-new building in a scorching, windswept valley, like real estate from the planet Mars. The sufficiently sepulchral mortician at the front desk had pointed us to a dark corridor that led to a side room with a faint glow. I figured that we were supposed to wait there until they took us in the back to visit the body, at which point I planned to excuse myself for the bathroom and then repair to a non- windy corner of the building outside for a much- needed cigarette. But when I pushed my teacher and his wheelchair around the corner and into the small, bare room, there was—to my utter shock—a dead body in a big black box. It was Dr. Haley-like, but it was not him at all. The candlelit creature inside the casket was a thing unto itself, the embodiment of the natural phenomenon known as death. In real life, Dr. Haley had towered. In real death, he seemed about three feet shorter. This is what happens when you drain the fluids from a body, I thought. We’re 60 percent water, after all. His stiff white hair was spazzing out at odd angles, like the plastic hair of an old doll that hasn’t been played with for decades. The back of his skull was propped up by a steel post instead of a pillow. Everything about him looked awkward—he was a Dr. Haley impostor—everything, that is, except for his face. I wheeled my teacher right up to the very edge of this silent spectacle, just as I’d done when we visited the Grand Canyon together. My teacher’s assistant removed a tiny mokugyo from her tote bag and lit a stick of incense. We chanted the Heart Sutra. It was as though we were singing a song of reverence before some miracle of nature, a streaking comet or an animal giving birth. Unlike every other human face I’ve ever looked into, there was absolutely nothing wrong with this one. Living human faces ➤ continued page 82