There are certain aspects of life that we simply cannot avoid, though often, we try to ignore. Death is probably foremost on a long list. Rationally, we understand that it is the logical conclusion to the cycle of life. We are all born terminal. No avoidance, no compromise. We can work hard to postpone it as long as possible but in the end, we all meet the same conclusion to our existence.
Hopefully, we follow a progression where we live a full life, age gracefully, then quietly pass. Our movement beyond the veil should come in our old age. If we have prepared well, there is no fear in facing our final days. We come to them with a simple acceptance and faith that what lies beyond is a better place. For those of us left behind, we honor those that have gone before and keep them in our memories and in our hearts.
Our nice, rational world gets upended, though, when someone goes well before old age and in the middle of a full and exciting life. We are blindsided by the news that a person we know has suddenly left us. This past week, I was blindsided in such a way while scrolling through a social media site. Pictures and words were right there in front of me but I could only stare for a minute or so, trying to process what was on the tablet screen.
My student in Lincoln, Nebraska, Ben, had died suddenly in his apartment.
There is a tendency to idealize one close to us that has gone earlier than expected, to enlarge them in death beyond what they were in life. Ben requires no such action. He was bigger than life beginning at a very early age.
Stricken by disease shortly after birth, Ben was rendered deaf. In his early teens an injury required that he not engage in physical activity for a number of weeks. You can imagine how well that works with any teenager. After expressing his boredom to his mother, she sat him at a piano. She showed him the relationship between the dots on the printed pages and the piano keys. In doing so she ignited a fire that burned brighter than anyone could have ever imagined.
In a world where “normal” people struggled to attain so much as adequacy at such an instrument, Ben excelled. He learned to read the vibrations he felt when playing. He became a concert-level pianist, performing in some of the major churches in the Midwest. Ben also carried with him a story of faith and joy for those that attended. He was an inspiration to those that needed an example of what can be accomplished when one does not let their supposed limitations get in the way of what desired.
In this same vein, Ben became a member of the Kokondo dojo in Mountain Home, Arkansas several years ago. He put just as much concentration and effort into his karate training as he did with his music. His instructor and fellow students had to likewise learn to navigate from Japanese terminology for a technique to their own shorthand version of signing so he’d know what was to be done. Everyone had to step up and it was good for them all.
Ben brought with him a unique sense of humor, sometimes intentional, sometimes by accident. In one such instance, we were seated around a large table after a weekend workout. Mr. Hea (Ben’s instructor at the time) announced that our Midwest Spring Seminar was going to be held in Mountain Home. Ben, not familiar with the term “Kaicho”, the title of the head of our system, curiously asked why we were having a “seminar with nachos”. He got the biggest laugh out of it when it was properly communicated that we were having a person there, not a meal.
At a later workout, he asked me about a specific defense technique in our syllabus……the defense against a sucker punch. Thinking I was going to be demonstrating the defense, I signaled to him to attack. He then assumed a “sucker punch” stance – holding a lollipop in each hand, sporting that huge grin we had come to expect.
Ben moved from Mountain Home to Lincoln a little over two years ago and was quietly assuming that his time in Kokondo had come to a close. He’d be detached from his dojo mates and instructor, and his finances didn’t allow for him to get to seminars that were out of state. We discussed this and agreed that, so long as he had the desire to continue training and would keep up his hard work, I would visit Lincoln periodically and stay on as his instructor. It was an amazing time. Ben put the same effort into his Kokondo training as he did his piano rehearsals. It was both impressive and gratifying to see that, even though we were almost 500 miles apart and I could only arrange a to be there every three or four months, he continued to improve and grow as a student.
My last visit there was eleven days before his passing. We spent our four hours going over basics and forms, then chatted a bit before I began the long drive home. Though we were still in August, Ben was hard at work preparing for a pair of Christmas performances he had on the horizon. He was having to figure out which numbers to cull from the list of 25 with which he started, understanding that the crowd probably would eventually grow restless even though he would not. He also mentioned that he was considering taking on students and helping our system to grow.
There is a saying in the Japanese martial arts community “Seven times down, eight times up”. The idea is that when we get knocked off our feet, we get back up, dust ourselves off, and continue on. I cannot think of anyone I’ve met in “real life” that exemplified that more than Ben. Not once in our brief time together did I ever experience him giving anything less than his very best, be it in piano rehearsals or on the dojo floor. In witnessing both, he was a force of nature in the focus and intensity he possessed.
An interesting interview with Ben can be seen below.
I finish by saying what an honor it was to have known, worked with, and helped train this extraordinary individual. I, like anyone else that may have come across Ben in this works, am the better person for it.
Rest well my friend. You will be missed. Ossu!