by Mark Doty
Maggie’s taking care of a man
who’s dying; he’s attended to everything,
said goodbye to his parents,
paid off his credit card.
She says Why don’t you just
run it up to the limit?
but he wants everything
squared away, no balance owed,
though he misses the pets
he’s already found a home for
— he can’t be around dogs or cats,
too much risk. He says,
I can’t have anything.
She says, A bowl of goldfish?
He says he doesn’t want to start
with anything and then describes
the kind he’d maybe like,
how their tails would fan
to a gold flaring. They talk
about hot jewel tones,
gold lacquer, say maybe
they’ll go pick some out
though he can’t go much of anywhere and then
abruptly he says I can’t love
anything I can’t finish.
He says it like he’s had enough
of the whole scintillant world,
though what he means is
he’ll never be satisfied and therefore
has established this discipline,
a kind of severe rehearsal.
That’s where they leave it,
him looking out the window,
her knitting as she does because
she needs to do something.
Later he leaves a message:
Yes to the bowl of goldfish.
Meaning: let me go, if I have to,
in brilliance. In a story I read,
a Zen master who’d perfected
his detachment from the things of the world
remembered, at the moment of dying,
a deer he used to feed in the park,
and wondered who might care for it,
and at that instant was reborn
in the stunned flesh of a fawn.
So, Maggie’s friend?
Is he going out
Into the last loved object
Of his attention?
Fanning the veined translucence
Of an opulent tail,
Undulant in some uncapturable curve
Is he bronze chrysanthemums,
Copper leaf, hurried darting,
Doubloons, icon-colored fins
Troubling the water?
As the man in Mark Doty’s poem sits, waiting to die of AIDS, it becomes clear that he has a moral choice to make. We might think that he’s in a situation where all choices have been taken away from him. His life has been reduced, whittled down, to the point where no one visits him except Maggie, his caretaker, who comes to sit beside him and knit. Maybe the other people in his life are gone because they made their own moral choices and fled from him when he got sick, a gradual seeping of friendship that is all too familiar to people who are living with long, debilitating illnesses. But maybe they’re absent by his choice. As his condition has progressed, other people become increasingly threatening, not by their actions but because of the infections they might carry, infections that are so unimportant to them that they go unnoticed, but that could easily kill the man in the poem. This was written in the early nineties, before the advent of potent antivirals, and I must pause here and say that we can all be like Maggie when visiting people who have AIDS, and wash our hands a lot to reduce the risk of passing on some unrecognized infection, but also be present, and loving, and remain true in our friendships without fear. But for the man in the poem, AIDS has meant that his life is reduced, by neglect, by fear, possibly by both, by the untenable emotional wounds he’s bearing as well as by the sad terror of his coming death. Reduced now to the point where even his pets are gone, given away, because they, too, can carry diseases. Reduced to making his moral choice, the choice to whittle his life down even farther, paying off his credit cards, not spending money, preparing to leave a nullity where his life had been. No sign that he’d ever been on the earth. He has, as Doty says, established a discipline of denial, “a kind of severe rehearsal” of the emptiness that is death.
And that is what the Gospel is about this morning. “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves. People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.” The end times will come, and amid the calamity, the destruction, the fear, the distress, the shaking, we will have a choice. We can either stay awake, watching and aware, hoping for the coming of Christ, or we can turn to dissipation and drunkenness. We can become frantic, too frantic, can immerse ourselves in worry and terror, and by doing so come to imagine that destruction is all that there really is. And if it’s all there really is, then there’s nothing we can love. Like the man in Doty’s poem, we might say that we can’t love anything we can’t finish. And with the world ending, how could we finish anything?
A world that’s whittled away. Although the end times haven’t come in the two thousand years since Jesus spoke about signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, we are always constantly in danger of having our worlds whittled away. The man in the poem is living in his end time. You and I have lived in our own end times, from time to time. Or thought that we were. Something has happened, and we have been frozen, wondering how the world could go on. And we have fallen prey to dual temptations. To withdraw so thoroughly that nothing will ever touch us. Or to invest ourselves in panic, to run around insanely, to invest ourselves in the worries of this life, in the hope that through this investment, we can stop our worlds from ending. Jesus doesn’t want us to do either of these things. He wants us to stay awake, aware on the razors edge of awareness, to pay attention to the things that are happening as our worlds end, but not to strive in an attempt to stop that ending.
For me, this happened when I was nineteen. I was in love with my high school girlfriend, but I was going to college in Ohio, and she was in Wisconsin. One Sunday morning in November she surprised me during a telephone call by wondering if we shouldn’t take a little break from each other. I panicked. My world was ending. I borrowed a friend’s car and drove to Wisconsin. I had no money, no cash on hand. This was in the days before ATM machines, and, it being Sunday, the bank wasn’t open. So I had to avoid the toll roads, to drive far to the west around Chicago. It was a long, cold, agonizing ride. I had just crossed over the Wisconsin border when the car broke down. The engine seized. I walked through sleet to a gas station and called a tow truck, and then I called my girlfriend, told her where I was, and begged her to come pick me up. The tow truck arrived long before she did. The driver hitched up the car and then I sat in the cab of his truck with him while we waited. He’d just had a new baby, and he told me all about her. Time passed. It became obvious that my girlfriend wasn’t coming. He took me to a gas station and left me there, and I sat and waited for her to finally come running in.
I am, to this day, deeply grateful towards that tow truck driver. Because in his talk about his new baby, he was telling me something important. He was telling me that new life remained a possibility. That in my despair, there was something to cling to. A small domestic happiness that I could still attain someday, that he had attained, that was enough to make a man get out of bed at two in the morning to pick up a panicked teenager on a cold Wisconsin road, and still be happy, still be content, and kind, because happiness waited for him at home. He gave me an opportunity to mimic the man in Mark Doty’s poem, to say “yes” to the fish.
Jesus would approve of the man’s choice. “Let me go, if I have to, in brilliance.” Get the fish, concentrate on it. Stay awake, as your world is ending – awake enough to invest yourself in something bright and beautiful. For us, for Christians, the most bright and most beautiful thing is Christ himself. Can we turn and contemplate Christ even when our worlds are ending? That is the question, and the call. To open our eyes, to stay awake. To truly see and stand before the Son of Man.
And what of the Zen master at the end of the poem, who is reborn in “the stunned flesh of a fawn?” Part of the brilliance of Doty’s poem is the realization that for the Zen master, this is a failure. He doesn’t want to be reborn as a fawn – he doesn’t want to be reborn at all, but to slide beyond the cycle of birth and rebirth that Buddhists consider the source of all misery. Yet how can he help it? How can any of us help it? How can we help it, even when we would like to whittle away the concerns of our lives, to create an absence, a nullity? Instead, we make a choice for love. We hear about a new born baby on a cold Wisconsin road. We let ourselves remember the deer who once ate from our hands. We accept the purchase of a fish. And, in the final moments, if we are faithful, we will forget everything but the contemplation of the “last loved object of our attention.” Christ, coming in a cloud, with power and great glory.