Since early September, we’ve been keeping the sangha informed through email of our dear brother Mn. Yukon’s health condition. In the interest of sharing this news more widely, we’re adding Mountain Notes to the means of communication. The following post does not add much substantive information to the email sent out to formal students and Practicing Members in early December. All we can add at this point is that Yukon continues to teach us how to live in the present and practice the paramita of patience. We simply don’t know the timing or exactly how things will unfold from here, though we’re assured by his oncology team that it won’t be long. Instead of more concrete answers, what we have now is Yukon’s graced presence at the Jizo House, a remarkable turn of events considering that the new building was completed less than three years ago with the intention of providing dignified and comfortable accommodations for convalescence, especially with monastic end-of-life care in mind. Of course, the other great lesson from this experience is the undeniable fact of our mortality. Impermanence makes all things possible. No one loved repeating that line more than Yukon himself, and as both a gardener and a keen observer of life’s processes, he knew it to be true.
It’s been nearly four months since Yukon was diagnosed with rapidly advancing brain cancer (glio blastoma), leading to surgery, and then a pause, followed by chemotherapy and radiation. For several weeks before the diagnosis and surgery, he’d noticed a new unavailability of language where words had previously appeared at command. Naturally, Yukon first chalked it up to aging—a new development in the ongoing adventure of elder mortality—but the aphasia seemed to be growing like a wildfire and, over the course of a week’s vacation in the company of his sister and brother-in-law, the matter became urgent. Yukon was taken to the hospital where all manner of tests were conducted to uncover the culprit, a 4 cm mass colonizing the language region of his brain and causing irreparable damage. The surgeon was able to remove almost the entirety of the tumor, but due to the scattering of cells in this type of cancer, there was really no chance of remission. We were told that without treatment, he would likely succumb to the cancer within three or four months. After considering the options and the generally favorable odds of extending his life through treatment, Yukon made the decision to pursue radiation and low dose chemotherapy beginning in early October and running five weeks.
Unfortunately, as can happen with cancer treatments, his have proven to be less helpful than we would have wished. And where we would have expected Yukon to feel some relief from the persistent achiness and punishing exhaustion, the long marathons of deep sleep that began with the beginning of treatment became his default state. The lack of activity had a degrading effect on his body, despite all interventions. His cognition was also further compromised over this time.
Although we feel he received excellent medical treatment and was fortunate to have so many helping hands involved in his care, the treatment simply did not have the impact we were hoping for: a period of remission and general well-being that might have given Yukon at least another year of life. With the aid of an MRI scan in mid-December, the doctors informed us that the cancer had grown back since surgery and spread to other areas of his brain. The increasing rate of physical and cognitive decline also indicated to the doctors that his time with us is growing short. Fortunately, he does not have much pain at this point. In fact, sleep is his default state. With internal swelling, the brain goes into periods of shut down in an effort to repair. This is true of any impact to the brain, and it has certainly been the case with Yukon’s cancer.
In light of these developments, in early December Yukon was enrolled in Hospice, switching our focus to palliative care in the interests of making his remaining time on earth as comfortable as possible. This transition was difficult and at the same time healing for everyone involved. Yukon accepted the news from his care team with grace and understanding. It feels safe to say that he has been focused on “healing all his ills” as we state in our daily Health and Healing liturgy. And indeed, after going on Hospice, some of the worst side effects of the treatment seemed to wear off and he has been more or less physically comfortable. Although Yukon has turned inward these last months—both by necessity and also by choice—the specter of transitioning and the fruit of all his hard work has opened him to connect with a few loved ones in deep and important ways. Yukon’s blood family and his monastic family are now gathered around him to support our dear brother in any way he needs. (At the top of this post you’ll see a bedside service with monastics and family gathered around him on Christmas day.) With additional caregivers and hospice staff, there are about 15 people in Yukon’s orbit on a weekly basis. That’s actually a fair amount of personalities for someone in his condition to track, and he has made it clear that he doesn’t want any additional interactions at this time. Although he continues to receive heartwarming messages through the mail, we stopped arranging visits some time ago.
Many people know Yukon as the garrulous monk who went out of his way to make any and all feel welcome at the Monastery, at the Zen Center, and really anywhere he happened to be. A legendary conversationalist who brought comfort to countless practitioners seeking guidance, after the onset of his illness Yukon was left with perhaps ten percent of his verbal capacity and a beguiling disorientation. His sweetness, humor and devotion to the path, however, remained steadfast as he embarked on this final chapter.
Among the many ways we take solace is knowing that Yukon chose this course of treatment in hopes of having more time in this life. Yet as we know, and as he knew then and knows now, we’re only in control of so much. Thank you for sending your thoughts and prayers. Yukon’s practice of gratitude has been truly inspiring throughout this whole ordeal. It’s clear that he has been sending that out, not just to his caregivers and those who are close by, but to everyone who has supported his practice and his vows over the years. And this includes you.
We will keep everyone informed of the situation when there is any further news to share. In the mean time, please enjoy a few more photos of Yukon from over the years.