Making Friends With Death

Gratitude is a practice. Befriending what we haven’t chosen is also a practice.
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Myogen Steve Stücky
Colleen Morton Busch
Myogen Steve Stücky

When I die, don’t say I battled cancer. Please say I befriended it.

I don’t have cancer—yet—but the person I’ve shared my life with for the past 15 years does, as do many others I love. Breast cancer runs in my family. It’s probably just a matter of time until the suspicious finding on the mammogram turns out not to be benign. I’ve borrowed this idea of befriending from a man who died of an aggressive pancreatic cancer in 2013 and modeled how to meet his own death with a radical curiosity.

I got to know Myogen Steve Stücky, former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center, while writing a book about the wildfire that nearly burned down Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, a sister temple, in 2008. Abbot Steve, as he was affectionately called, led the decision by five resident priests to turn back during an evacuation. They saved Tassajara with no professional backup. Abbot Steve, who grew up laboring on a farm in Kansas, told me it was among the most intense work he’d ever done.

During and after the fire, Abbot Steve talked about meeting it as another neighbor in the valley. He spoke of “getting to know the fire” and having a “relationship” with this element that is an essential part of the ecosystem. He thought of the fire as a friend that required strictness and boundary setting. He recognized the fires within—the flames of digestion and cognition, the heat of feelings.

In the fall of 2013, five years after he’d helped save Tassajara, Abbot Steve got a terminal diagnosis. He treated the cancer, but when he saw that it had gained too much ground for him to survive, he accepted his situation and turned his attention to dying with as much awareness as he could muster. He danced with death, like he danced with fire, remaining open and fully engaged even as he suffered grave losses and felt intense pain.

In an October 2013 blog post, not long after his diagnosis, he turned his shocking situation into an opportunity for reflection: “It is three weeks tomorrow that I started my new life. I am learning things every day.” Note: new life.

In early November, Abbot Steve reminded his students, “This is a good time to examine the reality of impermanence in all of our lives. And to continue to express our love for each other.”

Abbot Steve was the last person anyone expected to get sick and succumb to illness. Like my uncle Paul Reinhart, a distance runner who never smoked and died of metastatic lung cancer, certain vexing questions arose. Why me? Why this deadly cancer? Why this awful pain?

Abbot Steve met these questions whole-heartedly.

Around Thanksgiving, he wrote: “The ‘practice of gratitude’ for me begins simply with saying the word ‘gratitude’ and allowing whatever arises in thought to be regarded as loveable no matter who or what it may be. This...acknowledges that everything, absolutely everything is fully participating in the fact of my existence this moment.”

He went on, “These days...I wake up and say ‘gratitude’ and the next thought is ‘pain in the belly’ or ‘cancer’ or it’s ‘not fair!’ To accept such thoughts with gratitude may be impossible and even contribute to further unwholesome states of mind. So, it is realistically healthier to enter this practice by creating a field of positive energy by first naming what you know from experience is nourishing for you.”

Because I was telling a story in which the threat of death was real and present, I asked Abbot Steve about death often. People died during the course of my working with him—his mother, dear friends. Abbot Steve used those occasions to talk about grief as a teacher, as something that asks us to realize the truth of impermanence. We grieve because we love, because we hold close what cannot be held on to. Because as humans, we have attachments, first and foremost to our own lives.

Gratitude is a practice. Befriending what we haven’t chosen is also a practice. And the two are intimately connected. I know that if myeloma were on the march—eating away at my husband’s bones and clogging his kidneys—or if I were facing a terminal diagnosis, to welcome my experience without resistance would be difficult.

But as I write this, fire is burning towards Tassajara again. And even as I hope for Tassajara’s safety, I respect the fire. I acknowledge that it too is “fully participating” in its life.

Of course, we try to keep a wildfire or cancer from destroying what we love, but whatever comes, I won’t use the word battle. It creates an unhelpful opposition, as if cancer or wildfire were separate from us rather than potential teachers or invitations to transformation. Making enemies just isn’t the response I want to choose. To become defensive is to harden, and when I harden, I miss so much. Things have a tendency to deflect off of me—essential things like love and the warmth and wonder of life.

When that final fire came for him, Abbot Steve lived his dying as he’d lived his life—not pushing away what was difficult or unknown, expanding even as physically he wasted away. He died with a slight smile on his face.

Thank you, Abbot Steve, for that beautiful example of—not surrender—but letting go.

Abbot Steve posing in his robes with fire gear after the 2008 Basin Complex fire.
Mako Voelkel
Abbot Steve posing in his robes with fire gear after the 2008 Basin Complex fire.
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