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Visiting Philip Whalen - DC
A friend of mine and I visited Philip at the Laguna Honda Hospital's hospice on Monday, June 17th, just nine days before he died. I had called him up to tell him I was coming but he said that he wouldn't be there because Joanne Kyger was coming to pick him up and take him to the Tiger's baseball game and from there on to somewhere else. Tigers? I called Joanne and she said that Philip had been "wandering" recently - his mind, I knew she meant, not his body. She thought it would be a good idea if I took him for a wheelchair walk while I was there.
I was going to go with Bill Lane and Dennis Samson, two old Zennies who knew Philip, but neither could make it. I called Dave Haselwood, a Zen priest out here in Sonoma who'd published Philip way back when I was in public school. Dave's wife is ill and he couldn't make it. So my friend Cecilia and I went to the city together. First we visited the old Sokoji temple which is being remodeled into part of a $12,000,000 senior citizens center for Japanese Americans. Boy did that bring back memories. Then we visited Glenn Todd next door to Sokoji and talked about Bill McNeill, Shunryu Suzuki's first student, looked at some of McNeill's paintings, and had lunch in a Japanese restaurant. Glenn's an old friend of Philip and he told us to say hi to Philip for him.
We popped in on Philip in the afternoon and spent an hour chatting. The first thing he mentioned was that he was ready to leave there, that he'd been trying to get a taxi, but then he went on to talking about this and that.
I said hi for a bunch of people and asked him what he remembered about Bill McNeil whom I was touching on in something I am working on these days. Philip told me a few stories as he'd told them several years back, and gave me a few new details as I asked for them. He asked how my sister and mother were doing and made a detailed reference to each showing that his memory was running just fine. His mind was clear but his body seemed to be fading.
He was his same old charming, kind, dry-humorous self. He looked like he was melted into the bed. His head was sticking out and the big lump under the covers didn't seem like anything that was going to move. Forget the wheelchair. There didn't appear to be any legs down there but his hands came out to hold a cup and sip some soda from it. That seemed to be about all he could do.
Philip didn't complain or seem to be uncomfortable, but he did want to get out of there. When Cecilia asked him if she could get him something he said he'd like the phone number of a cab company so they could come pick him up. But he didn't press the point. I thumbed through a book on Philip, Ginsberg, and Kerouac in the fire lookout in Washington State and he said it had nice photos in it. He was pretty blind these last few years and I wondered how well he saw them.
When Philip moved into the Page Street City Center in early 1972, he moved right across the hall from me. He had a lot of interesting visitors like Alan Ginsberg and Gregory Corso, but from that day his friends were mainly us weird and obsessed Zennies. He clearly had long been on his own spiritual path and was quite cultivated and knowledgeable about Zen and Japanese culture when he arrived, but once he started practicing Zen with us, he did not get sidetracked. He didn't have ants in his pants like so many of us youngsters he tolerated so generously, but he was great to walk around town with - he just knew so much about everything - the history, the architecture, the birds on the wires. He added a good deal of dignity and maturity to the vibes in the building or at Tassajara when he was there. He was also better educated than most of us - knew the classics. He didn't get all hot and bothered about things the way a lot of us did, always was cool and above the fray. He always stayed loyal to his friend and teacher, Richard Baker Roshi but he didn't get involved in taking sides or putting others down when the community was in transition.
He'd met Suzuki Roshi a few times but went on to Japan to see what he could learn there. [See my interview with him] Later he felt that had been a mistake. He had a little electric organ in his room that year that he'd play some simple classical pieces on (I can't remember for sure but I think I remember Bach) while listening on his earphones.
I visited Philip every few months while he was in one hospice program or another. It seems it's been years. He'd say, "I'm going to die soon," and I'd say, "That's what you've been saying since I met you," and he'd say, "I think it's true this time." Then I'd see him back at the Hartford Street zendo in his robes. I'm glad I got to see him one last time before he died, but I'm also glad his taxi finally arrived and took him off. He was really ready to go. Farewell dear friend! - DC
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