Long time Zen Center resident Jerome Peterson died at the age of 82 on December 12th. He was one of the first American Zen students in San Francisco; in 1962 he showed up at the original Sokoji temple where Suzuki Roshi first taught. I was never officially introduced to Jerome and after several months of living at the temple and seeing him shuffling between his usual spots (his room; the men’s bathroom; the small kitchen table; the front lobby) I was surprised to learn that he knew my name, in fact he knew many people’s names. His normal countenance seemed so inwardly-focused; he might be concentrating one-pointedly on negotiating the next step on the back stairway, or sitting at the small kitchen table with a plate of food looking for all appearances as if in deep zazen. But then when he spoke, the air flowed out of him and his face was in motion, and his voice was that of a melodious prince. “Greeeetings!” was a favorite phrase, the tones traveling up and down, all in one slowly issued breath.
One morning I joined his weekly group in reciting the Flower Ornament Sutra, out of curiosity, because he’d been doing it continuously for something like fourteen years. At the end he passed out dried persimmon wedges that a friend had sent to him from Japan, each in its own package and oozing with sugar crystals. It took me days to eat that persimmon wedge, each bite was so sweet.
When he died, his body left the temple and then came back, one of those bureaucratic tangles that just had to be resolved in a certain convoluted way. And then he was laid out in Room #1 on the ground floor on a bed of greenery, and anyone was invited to go in and sit with him. His robe was laid over the top of his body, his head peeking out at the top, looking tiny compared with the largeness he projected in living form. Ceremonial objects from his room were set on an altar next to the bed. I went in on the last night before he went on to the crematorium. Another resident sat with me and having another witness felt just right.
When I’d last seen Jerome he’d been on the hallway floor not breathing, his face a dark reddish brown color. I’d thought to myself, is that blue? because a person’s face is supposed to turn blue when they lose oxygen. But what I saw was reddish brown. Now, lying in Room #1, Jerome’s face had returned to its normal color, white with rosy cheeks, and he looked like a little boy. I sat with him awhile and kissed his shoulder, which felt hard and heavy and cold to touch, like marble.
Sitting with Jerome’s body was not what I imagined. The room seemed exceedingly still and quiet, more still even than the zendo. It felt like being out in a meadow on a snowy day when there is no wind and no animals about, a pleasant coldness and lack of vibration. Room #1 invited a longer stay, and more intimacy, than other situations where I’ve seen dead humans, mostly at open casket funerals.
For the first time I felt some regret that I wasn’t at my parents’ home in San Diego when my mom died in 2006, that I wasn’t with her as she died and didn’t sit with her body. I don’t have any particular feeling about a person’s body after death. Perhaps it is just carbon and other debris no longer needed, all aggregates disassembled. But saying good-bye in the stillness of death seems to have a different quality to it than all the good-byes we make before death, even when we see death coming. The body is familiar and we have a connection to it, and the connection is no longer complicated by the considerations we must always make when dealing with a live human being, filtering our thoughts through our past histories with that person, the things we’ve agreed to include or not include in our relationship, the unknown territory of how we each respond to the next word or action.
It felt like a gift, from Jerome to all of us, to sit with Jerome’s body and just reflect on his sweet nature, feeling good will toward his passage. May it be so.