A Soto Zen teacher told me that by sitting zazen, one is taking refuge in the true self. Compassion, including self-compassion, and kindness, including to one’s self, is where the true self exists. Sitting on my cushion at the same time every day, year after year, has helped me to experience moments of this true self. This is what happened to me recently when I experienced the resolution of some unhappiness that I’d been carrying with me for many years.
I remember, vividly, an earlier time when I was embarrassed, and angry, toward a friend I’d known since middle school. The event happened in the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
I’d known this friend, Philip, since the seventh grade. We knew even then what we were about, and that we liked boys, though we could never let anyone else know. This was 1964 in Ohio farm country. Some of our ideas about what it meant to be gay were pretty hilarious, but somehow we made our way, and supported each other into adulthood.
On his 16th birthday, Philip was given a red Mustang convertible. He would come by my house on Friday nights, and on the way out of town we’d pick up hamburgers and shakes at the drive-through, then head for the busy airport in Dayton.
We’d park off the road at the edge of the airport, close to the fence, where we could sit right where the passenger jets came in for landing. The planes came very close, the car would shake, and we would throw our arms around each other and yell and scream as we looked up at the huge tires. We were never boyfriends, but it felt good to get close together like that.
After college, Philip followed in the footsteps of his two older sisters, who had become flight attendants. In those days, a male attendant was very rare. He was stationed in Los Angeles, and he traveled all over the world.
I moved to New York City after college and worked in publishing, eventually as the publicity director for a major publishing house. One year, after a plane had crashed and killed everyone on board, I developed a severe fear of flying. I knew the names of several on the flight who were traveling to the same book convention that I was. The next time I had to fly to Los Angeles for business, Philip put me on a direct flight from New York to LA on the same plane he’d be working on. He took me to the galley of the huge DC-10 airliner and had me help the flight attendants stock their carts. It was a lot of fun. He’d made me part of the flight crew, which kept me too busy to be scared. What a brilliant idea.
On our plane’s approach to LA, he took me down to the storage deck and showed me a small window that was right over the landing gear, explaining that this was for the pilot to check if there were any problems.
I lay flat on my stomach to peer out the little window for the last twenty minutes of the flight. The view was spectacular. I was ecstatic, and it brought me back to those days Philip and I sat staring up at the incoming jets. Finally, the airliner came softly down. I felt as if I had landed the plane, myself. I was, once again, a bona fide fearless flier.
Two years later, Philip lost his job. He had AIDS. Both the pilots union and the airline felt he could be in danger of infecting people, though, even then, doctors knew this couldn’t happen.
I’d left publishing and become a clinical social worker, working with many men about my own age with AIDS. I was now traveling regularly to the West Coast, from New York to LA to see Philip, and then from there to San Francisco to see my older brother, and friends, all of whom had AIDS.
One day, I received a call from Philip’s partner, Jim. I could tell he desperately needed respite from taking care of Philip. I flew out the next week and rented a car to drive with Philip from Los Angeles to San Francisco on the Pacific Coast Highway.
What Jim didn’t tell me was that Philip was having delusions. Philip’s paranoia showed itself when we were quite a few miles along. He told me that he knew he was being followed by FBI agents, who wanted to get information from him. If they were successful, they would kill him. Then added ominously, “You, too.”
I watched over him like a bodyguard, even when we went out to visit friends. When, a couple days later, I took him to the airport to fly home, we hugged, but at that point both of us were afraid of each other.
Months later, I came home to find a message from Philip on my answering machine.
It was urgent. He sounded happy.
When I called back, he wanted to know if I still knew people on the Today Show. He was referring to my former job as a publicist.
“Sure, but what for?”
“My doctor and I need your advice. I’m cured!”
He was crying. He wanted to know what I thought. Would I handle publicity for them.
I got excited and was already making plans.
There was a long pause.
“Though there is a side effect. I don’t have a heartbeat. It’s a touchy subject.”
“You can’t feel it?”
“I’m getting used to it.”
I told him I had another call on the line. After I hung up, I called Jim, who told me Philip kept calling his doctor demanding to be told that he was cured. The doctor was losing his patience.
I was sad about this, but also I was angry, not just at Philip, as if he’d played some sick joke on me, but for revealing in the end that AIDS was here to stay.
A year later, I was at a hospice in LA. I was there to say goodbye. The hospice was near the airport, and at one point a plane roared over our heads. Sitting on the bed with him, I reached over and we held on to each other.
I often think about Philip’s call to tell me he was cured. But, thirty years later, a faraway event that had made me angry and embarrassed has now changed to compassion, tenderness, and kindness. I know that all those negative feelings were not just about Philip tricking me. The anger that lasted for decades was my unacknowledged grief. I finally found refuge in my true self.
For a precious five minutes, before Philip told me he had no heartbeat, both of us knew, and we were dead certain, that AIDS was beaten.
I imagine seeing him, my brother, friends, and all my former clients, suddenly cured back then, and alive today.
I settle back into that moment when Philip told me he’d found a cure, and I fell for it. I’m no longer angry or embarrassed. I remember it now as five minutes of joy. My heart stops. I take a deep breath, and I believe him all over again.