From BRING ME THE RHINOCEROS by John Tarrant, (c) 2004. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc., www.shambhala.com. Out in paperback November 2008.
One morning I woke up and thought out of the blue, "Today is the right day to see Phil Whalen." I dropped my daughter off at
school, got the blood test I get periodically, and drove down
Highway 101 past sodden spring fields and through intermittent
rain. Philip was a Beat poet and also abbot of Hartford Street Zen
Center. At the time of this story he was in the San Francisco
Zen Center Hospice on Page Street.
At first I can't get into the hospice, but I bang a lot and a well dressed
man in his late thirties pops his head out. He has the air
of having come a very long way from an interesting room. "I'm not
supposed to answer this door," he announces and disappears. By
the time I get in, the only proof of his existence is that I am now
standing inside instead of on the pavement. I wander around and
The rooms have gaunt, sleeping people in them. I find Philip's
room because it is the only one with a closed door. Inside it is a
world of its own. He is lying flat on his back staring at a ceiling he
can't see because his diabetes has affected his eyes. He used to be
rotund in the laughing Buddha style. Now he is thin but not emaciated.
He can't sit up without help. The classical music station KALW is playing something Mozarty with strings. There are daffodils in a vase and they make a yellow haze that he claims to see and appreciates. He tells me they are King Alfreds, he remembers these things.
"How are you, Phil?"
"Well, I'm not dead; it's most embarrassing."
"What do you think of, lying here during the day?"
"Well, I don't think. They call me up and ask me what I thinkó
about reincarnation. I don't think anything about reincarnation.
I think we should paint it yellow and stand it in a corner. And
maybe dust it off every once in a while."
"And how does it go for you?"
"I get more irritable, but they don't seem to notice."
"Well, you've always claimed to be more obnoxious than others
think you are."
"Hmmm. They're into process here."
"What do you mean 'process'?"
"How you are supposed to die."
"They want me to die in stages. I can't be bothered with that."
"Perhaps you could consider it a performance event."
"My hair is a mess."
Friends shave Philip's head for him, and he has something less
than a centimeter of gray stubble on his head. He likes it smooth.
"So, I have to decide what to eat for lunch. Normally I would
order Chinese, but it's hard to eat lying down."
"I could get you dim sum."
"But the dim sum factory is far from here and I think of dim
sum as something you should eat while it's happening. Now someone
brought me some good bread. I have a refrigerator under the
bed and it's full of good things. It's a matter of deciding which
good thing to put on the bread. Have you seen a tall, older man
wandering around outside?"
"It's Carl. He is bringing me lunch."
"Well I'm here, I must be Carl today."
There is a refrigerator in a closet. It has salami, eight kinds of
olives, Muenster. I raid the big fridge downstairs in the kitchen
and also find a sharp Cheddar along with some raw onion. He
sends me on a retsina hunt. He waves behind him at a pantry that
I imagine existed in some other, perhaps now vanished, room.
Spring sunlight angles through the window, frail and hopeful.
Someone was supposed to bring a jar of retsina, and I search the
room for it, but it is a small room and retsina is nowhere to be
found. I crawl around for a while at eye level with the furniture
legs. It is a pleasant thing to do and even becomes exhilarating.
Crawling around on the floor is the best way of seeing a room, I
decide. A bottle of Dos Equis turns up in the refrigerator and he
declares, "That's it."
Philip eats slowly and appreciatively. Since he is blind, his
hand reaches around thoughtfully as if it had an exploratory impulse
of its own. It touches the pieces of food tenderly. The beer
bottle he orients in this way: He lowers it gently and touches it
first to his nose. Then he moves it carefully down his upper lip
until he gets to his mouth and then he tips it and drinks. The sun,
moving west, is warming and yellowing. At this time, he is not
dying; I am not visiting a dying man. Two men are having lunch,
one lying down, one sitting.
We talk books. He has Shakespeare to be read to him and
otherwise is fond of the eighteenth-century writers, has Gibbon's
Autobiography, Boswell's Life of Johnson, Sterne's Tristram Shandy.
I think then that he is an eighteenth-century man himself, with his
large head that seems to be full of light, his detailed knowledge
about so many things, his way of being spiritual but concrete. He
has none of the misty romanticism that the Victorians passed
down to modern meditators. And, unlike many Buddhists, he has
not made a pretend Buddhist world to live in. He likes and dislikes
this world with its physical pains and its pungent salami and
the low, midday sun warming the window. He doesn't yearn
toward another world than this one.
"I'm living too long, I may have to leave."
"How will that be, how is it here for you?"
"I like it here, they treat me well. But they are not allowed
to give me certain drugs and so on, because I'm supposed to be
dying more quickly. They may have to move me out, it's an administrative matter."
When I leave I kiss him on his stubbly head and shake his
"I hope to see you again," he says.
Then he mumbles something. I wait a beat and turn back,
"What was that?"
With the sweetest smile, he says, "Don't think it hasn't been
I could find nothing lacking or needing to be improved about
Philip. There was nothing he needed to turn toward, no special
way to go into the dark.
After he died, I got a card about Philip's death. It mentioned his
theory that he was a hospice failure and lived as long as he did
because of a curse he had put on the grim reaper. A photo was included
of Philip, making rings around his eyes with his fingers, as
if he had found glasses that would allow him to see.