061_Eskow_DNAIt began with a rush of blood. Then came fear, and curiosity. Were there dangers hidden in my genes? Clues about my future, even my death? Was my “self,” my personality, programmed into my genome?

Penetrate completely the matter of birth and death, says the traditional Zen instruction. Somehow I imagined it might be easier to let go of “body and mind,” as Zen master Dogen instructed, if I knew that both of those phenomena had been constructed genetically.

Most of our ancestors are forgotten, faceless and nameless. But they left their genes, and some left their words. I searched through those words and genes, expecting to see in them the familiar face of a hero or victim from the old stories.

I glimpsed that face. But I saw something else, too. I saw the face of a persecutor, a killer. I saw a stranger’s face. My face.

And behind it, an entire world. My world.

Today, then, is the day
the melting snowman
becomes a real man.

The twelve words of this Zen death poem are the only record of Fusen, the monk who wrote them as he lay dying in his 57th year. In my own 57th year I looked down into the toilet I had just used and saw bright clouds of blood forming lazy cumulus shapes in the water. A round of cancer tests followed, administered by a doctor who insisted that “things like this don’t just happen.”

Anyone who’s being tested for a life-threatening disease lives in suspended animation. Our lives become drifting swirls of probability where futures emerge like faces, sometimes kind and sometimes fierce, only to recede with the next lab report. We’re like Schrödinger’s cat from the physicist’s thought experiment, locked in a lead box and neither alive nor dead—or rather, both alive and dead—until someone looks inside. Meanwhile indifferent strangers probe our bodies, or slip us into imaging machines where we scratch at the metal walls like cats.

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