Stephen

By Sy Safransky • May 1993

I can’t belie­ve how nai­ve I was when I inter­view­ed Stephen Schwartz last year. I was drawn to his warm­th, his humor, the beau­ty of his lan­guage. I was moved by his insights about emo­tio­nal healing. There’s no ide­al sta­te of con­scious­ness, he insis­ted, other than the one we find our­sel­ves in right now. The body doesn’t need to be trans­cen­ded. The per­so­na­li­ty doesn’t need to be fixed. Caring for our­sel­ves begins with paying atten­ti­on to fee­lings, not our tan­gled sto­ries about our feelings.

I was moved, too, by his bra­ve words about can­cer. Though he had only recent­ly been dia­gno­sed with the dise­a­se, his atti­tu­de was one of pro­found accep­t­ance: he was gra­te­ful can­cer had come into his life, he said; can­cer had been an orde­al of fire and a kind of grace as well. He had under­go­ne che­mo­the­ra­py, and the tumor was shrin­king. From all appearan­ces, he was on the road back to health.

After the inter­view was publis­hed — the respon­se to it was tre­men­dous, he said, hund­reds of let­ters from around the coun­try — we met in Washington, D.C., for a wee­kend of sight­see­ing and late-night con­ver­sa­ti­on. We troo­ped through the Smithsonian, shuf­fled past the Vietnam Memorial, ate in over­pri­ced restau­rants, and tal­ked and tal­ked. I was inte­res­ted in get­ting to know more about this unusu­al man who one moment would be quiet­ly describ­ing the invi­si­ble field of radi­ant ener­gy sur­roun­ding the body, and the next be worried about Clinton’s dwind­ling lead in the polls.

But it was a mista­ke to let mys­elf be char­med by Stephen’s ebul­li­ence, his affec­tion for exo­tic food and big cities and rough­housing with his two sons. I would have been bet­ter off stay­ing at home, cur­led up with a book about some long-dead saint. They say it’s bet­ter to pay homage to the tea­ching, not the tea­cher, for we get too atta­ched. We’re sup­po­sed to care about their words, not their per­so­na­li­ties; their ide­as, not the blood cour­sing through their veins. Yet, drawn to the mys­te­rious essence of a man, to his laugh­ter, to the fire in his eyes, we want to stand bes­i­de him, see the world he sees.

And that’s nai­ve, they say, becau­se soo­ner or later the tea­cher betrays us, or lea­ves us, and we’re left with this ter­ri­ble ache.

The aut­hor Natalie Goldberg, in Long Quiet Highway, descri­bes the sen­seless mur­der years ago of Chris Pirsig, the son of Robert Pirsig, who wro­te Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance.

After Chris was kni­fed to death near the San Francisco Zen Center, his atta­ckers sim­ply ran. “They did not take a wal­let,” Goldberg wri­tes. “I don’t even know if Chris had one on him. I was sit­ting a seven-day retre­at in Minnesota. It was December. We all knew Chris. Rumors spread quick­ly during breaks, even though we were sup­po­sed to remain silent. We all awai­ted our teacher’s talk that morning. Katagiri Roshi was clo­se to Chris. He would make it all better.

Roshi wal­ked into the medi­ta­ti­on hall, bowed, lit incen­se, sat down. We chan­ted. Then he spo­ke. ‘Human bein­gs have an idea they are fond of: that we die in old age. That is just an idea. We don’t know when our death will come. Chris Pirsig’s death has come now. It is a gre­at tea­ching in impermanence.’ ”

At first, Goldberg said, she was furious. She thought Katagiri Roshi cared for Chris. How could he be so cru­el? But years later, when the roshi hims­elf lay dying, she sud­den­ly remem­be­red his talk and rea­li­zed it hadn’t been cru­el but bra­ve. She wro­te, “He was wil­ling to cut through all sen­ti­ment and touch the fun­da­men­tal truth of impermanence.”

I’m no roshi: I’m hard­ly able to accept bad wea­ther, let alo­ne the death of a friend. When they cal­led to tell me Stephen had died, I was speech­less. All I could think was that I’d meant to call him a week ago but never got around to it, never got around to fin­ding out whe­ther the herbs and the vit­amins and the juices were hel­ping, whe­ther the tumor was still shrinking.…

My grief was like a bat­te­red old suit­ca­se I didn’t want to claim. It cir­cled round and round while I just stood the­re, shaking my head. I remem­be­red tel­ling Stephen, during our last con­ver­sa­ti­on, I hope we’ll still be friends when we’re dod­de­ring old men.

I hope so, too, Sy, he said.

I wan­ted Stephen to be big­ger than life, big­ger than death. When he was first dia­gno­sed with can­cer, I was stun­ned. I wan­ted to belie­ve that eating a healt­hy diet, get­ting ple­nty of exer­cise, not smo­king, and, most important, living authen­ti­cal­ly and com­pas­sio­na­te­ly gran­ted a per­son some kind of immu­ni­ty. Yet spi­ri­tu­al tea­chers seem to die of can­cer as fre­quent­ly as the rest of us. Death wel­co­mes them no mat­ter how pure their diet or noble their thoughts.

I worried some­ti­mes,” Stephen admit­ted, “what peop­le were going to think of me. I assu­med vague­ly that can­cer was a vio­la­ti­on of what I should be.” After all, he exp­lai­ned, he had spent almost a deca­de as a spi­ri­tu­al tea­cher. He was known as a vital, ali­ve man with gre­at endu­ran­ce. Maybe peop­le would think the can­cer indi­ca­ted some nega­ti­vi­ty, or a poor self-image. “Many peop­le assu­me we crea­te our own ill­ness in some inex­pli­ca­ble way, or that God gives it to us as a kind of les­son,” he wro­te. “None of the­se noti­ons had ever been part of my tea­ching, but having can­cer sud­den­ly felt like an embarrassment.”

If he had eaten poor­ly, if he hadn’t been invol­ved in spi­ri­tu­al work, it would have been easy to sug­gest he nee­ded some kind of life­style chan­ge. “But I had eaten well for twen­ty years,” he con­ti­nued, “and lived a rela­tively clean and peace­ful life, so this didn’t fit into any par­ti­cu­lar con­cep­tu­al cate­go­ry. It nee­ded to be put into the realm of mys­te­ry, and some­ti­mes that requi­res a walk through fear.”

Stephen didn’t know how serious­ly ill he was until January 1992, when he col­lap­sed at home and was rus­hed to the hos­pi­tal. The doc­tors dis­co­ve­r­ed a tumor in his chest so big it was actual­ly pres­sing against his heart and lungs. During the bio­psy, the tumor shifted, com­ple­te­ly blo­cking his wind­pipe, and he almost died. He was put on che­mo­the­ra­py immediately.

One of the rea­sons it took him so long to do some­thing about his ill­ness, Stephen said, was that he knew instinc­tively it was going to lead him into a sys­tem he distrus­ted. Stephen was con­vin­ced that hos­pi­tals and drugs had litt­le to do with real healing. Finding hims­elf on che­mo­the­ra­py in the inten­si­ve-care unit of a major New York City hos­pi­tal was, he said, a direct vio­la­ti­on of his beliefs.

Eventually, Stephen deci­ded to stop the tre­at­ments, con­vin­ced they were doing more harm than good. His onco­lo­gist was enra­ged. If Stephen wan­ted to com­mit sui­ci­de, he could, the onco­lo­gist said, but he wouldn’t have any part of it. He said Stephen’s kind of lym­pho­ma was so dead­ly he must con­ti­nue to take the che­mo­the­ra­py without interruption.

Certainly peop­le have hea­led them­sel­ves of can­cer through pray­er or nut­ri­ti­on. It’s true, too, that tra­di­tio­nal can­cer the­ra­pies are for the most part inef­fec­ti­ve; some stu­dies show that tho­se who under­go sur­ge­ry, radia­ti­on, or che­mo­the­ra­py are likely to die soo­ner than tho­se who don’t. So I could under­stand the appeal for Stephen of any approach that focu­sed on buil­ding up the immu­ne sys­tem with diet and bodi­ly cleansing.

But lym­pho­ma is more respon­si­ve to che­mo­the­ra­py than most can­cers. Would Stephen be ali­ve today if he had sought medi­cal help soo­ner? Maybe the onco­lo­gist was right. Maybe Stephen should have given the che­mo­the­ra­py more of a chance.

Yet I can’t pre­tend to know what was best for him. As I wri­te this, I’m run­ning a fever, igno­ring my aching body. Instead of being home in bed, I’m at my desk. I’m someo­ne who never mis­ses a day of work, who doesn’t get sick. Do I know why I came down with the flu, or why being ill makes me feel vague­ly guil­ty? Didn’t I take enough vit­amin C?

During the last week of his life, Stephen was in pain, and breat­hing was dif­fi­cult. But, accord­ing to his wife Donna, he prac­ti­ced the kind of direct and unsen­ti­men­tal self-care he always encou­ra­ged in others, embra­cing the pain and the fear, retur­ning again and again to the breath, to the body. He refu­sed pain­kil­lers and asked Donna to pro­mi­se that no heroic mea­su­res be taken to keep him ali­ve — no more che­mo­the­ra­py, no respi­ra­tors, not ano­t­her grim hos­pi­tal orde­al. When his breat­hing final­ly beca­me so shal­low that Donna knew the end was near, she con­si­de­red cal­ling an ambu­lan­ce. Then, she said, she remem­be­red her pro­mi­se. A moment later, Stephen was dead.

I have lear­ned,” Stephen wro­te last year, “the­re is not­hing to fear about death. There is no fail­u­re in it, even though this life in form is pre­cious. When it comes time for us to depart, and I say this from the bot­tom of my heart, we will find some­thing soft and beau­ti­ful on the other side. Something waits for us. We don’t need to fear it, run from it, or hide.”

I would have pre­fer­red some kind of healing mira­cle, a home run in the bot­tom of the ninth. Stephen was only for­ty-three. I wan­ted him around for years. I wan­ted to learn more from him about genui­ne com­pas­si­on. I wan­ted him to show me how to move my atten­ti­on from the tang­le of thought to the ener­gy of the body, how to come to my sad­ness open­ly, how to real­ly give mys­elf per­mis­si­on to exist. And I wan­ted to beco­me bet­ter friends. I was only begin­ning to respect ins­tead of idea­li­ze him, to let him come down from his pedes­tal and be an ordi­na­ry man. As an old friend wro­te to me recent­ly, “I know you love me for my weak­nes­ses, as well as in spi­te of them — even when my weak­nes­ses inclu­de try­ing to hide them.” But it can take years to accept ano­t­her per­son in all his shab­by glo­ry, to suf­fer and for­gi­ve a friend’s weak­nes­ses, and to be forgiven.

I thought about wai­t­ing to wri­te this until the door to my heart was back on its hin­ges. I thought about wai­t­ing until I had more time. But I didn’t call Stephen when I had the chan­ce. I wai­ted until tomor­row, and tomor­row is a lie. Not having time to make this more polis­hed or more thought­ful reminds me we don’t get to lin­ger fore­ver over our sen­ten­ces. In this way, too, Stephen was a tea­cher right to the end.

By Sy Safransky