WHISPERS OF THANKSGIVING

We had a lovely Thanksgiving dinner on Friday rather than Thursday, with Bernie’s daughter and family, along with several people who supported him with generosity and grace, especially after his stroke.

The heavy manzanita dining table had been moved long ago from the dining room and became Bernie’s desk, in order to make room for his exercise mat. It was too heavy to move back, so we pulled it to a diagonal in the office Bernie shared with Rami Efal, ZPI’s Executive Director, and set up a buffet on two adjoining desks and a sideboard which carried a heavy bust of Bernie’s teacher, Taizan Maezumi.

Just two weeks ago the same desks and sideboard had been set up with photos, flowers, and candles while Bernie lay there. Occasionally I’d notice Maezumi Roshi’s stern visage looking on at the body in the center of the room, the body of the man he’d called Baisen Tetsugen, the penetrator of mysteries. After Maezumi Roshi’s death this same Tetsugen let his hair grow, then a beard, and told everyone he knew, including all students, to call him Bernie. He’d wanted to do that for many years, but wouldn’t as long as Roshi was alive, out of respect for his Japanese teacher.

This teacher had left these parting words to his first successor:

Life after life, birth after birth
Never Falter.
Do not let die the Wisdom seed of the Buddhas and Ancestors.
Truly! I implore you!

And Bernie/Tetsugen, indeed, publicly wrote out his promise to fulfill his teacher’s last wish.

I am one of many of Bernie’s fine successors, and also his wife. His last words to me, as his body entered septic shock, were quite different: I am so much trouble for you! My heart broke when he said them, and breaks every time I remember them. “No, no,” I begged him, “it’s all about love, Bernie, it’s all about love.” But I have no idea if he heard me.

There’s nothing fine or poetic about these words; they’re not drawn out in beautiful calligraphy, remembered reverently by students, printed and reprinted in articles and books. Just a man in the process of relinquishing his physical form, his body in septic shock, unable to find peace, and a wife who can’t do anything to stop the agitation other than to call 911, who in fact has no idea that these are the very last hours of his life, and makes one last entreaty: It’s all about love.

So we sat in that room last night and ate and drank. The snow waited on the dark ground outside for the past-full moon to light up the slope. These last nights have seen so much light I’d wake up in the middle of the night and watch the moonlight splash on the pillow where his head lay. The kids played hide-and-go-seek in the rest of the house; Ava even hid in the dryer—I didn’t fully shut the door, just a little!—and hopped out to scare the others, while we talked of Bernie.