Best Thing That Happened to This Martial Artist
"Moving" Peng and the Ground Path

The End of a Life

My mom died on Monday. I told her weeks ago to hang in there until Nancy and I were able to visit Atlanta on our way to our new home in Florida.

She did hang in there. I tried to talk to her every day on the phone, and every day she grew weaker. On Saturday, she was barely able to speak. We were at my daughter Harmony's house in Cincinnati--the first stop on our Victory 2007 tour to Cincinnati, Lexington, Atlanta, and then finally Tampa, our new home. I called her and both my daughters talked with her. She was able to say "I love you."

By the time we got to Atlanta on Sunday evening, she was a skeleton and unable to speak. She was barely able to squeeze my hand. Her eyes were cloudy, and one would barely open. The other didn't appear to focus very well.

My mom could be a very generous person, but she also was full of rage as I grew up. She started life with several strikes against her--born into a hillbilly family in Eastern Kentucky, a group of mean alcoholics. Her father either killed himself or was shot by my grandmother in front of my mom when she was 3 years old. She was taken to an orphanage in Lexington and lived there until she was 16, when she married my father. Her mom died of alcoholism when she was 36 years old. Her brothers were both very mean alcoholics, but when they were sober, they were charming and generous.

I grew up in a home where rage could explode at any moment, triggered by my mother. My dad was a lot like me, easy-going with a very evident sense of humor. She treated him terribly, and finally, they divorced when I was in college. She loved her children but had a hard time controlling her anger and rage. She drove some of us away. At the same time, she did wonderful things working with hospice in Frankfort, Kentucky, and she gained friendships among families whose loved ones she helped so wonderfully during their final days. She would give you her last dollar if you needed it, but she made many destructive decisions as well. She was a complicated person who lived a life that was so full of potential, but in the end, a little tragic.

When I arrived in Atlanta on Sunday, none of that mattered. Seeing her in such a state, unable to move or speak, and knowing she had waited to see me--I could only feel compassion and love.

She could barely respond, but she could hear, so I talked with her. I joked about her weight loss plan, and how skinny she was. I said, "I love what you've done with your hair." Her eyebrow raised. She knew I was teasing her.

On Monday morning, it seemed that she could pass away at any moment. Her breathing would stop, then she would take another breath. Outside of her earshot, a relative said that he believed she was hanging in not only to see me, but also for some sort of release. She felt guilty about divorcing my dad and other things troubled her.

I went in to see her alone, and told her that if she felt guilty or bad about anything in her life, she was completely forgiven and completely loved. I told her that she had raised some fine children and she had done a good job. And I told her that it was okay to go. She would be okay, and she would be remembered for the rest of our lives. I wanted her last hours to be full of love, something that was so difficult to find during her life.

I kissed her on the cheek several times. She made a kissing noise and was able to say "bye."

I was emotional as Nancy and I left to hit the road for Tampa. For the first time in my life, I didn't want to leave my mom.

About 5 hours later, when we were almost to Valdosta, my sister Kathy called. Our mom had died holding her hand.

In the end, nothing matters but love. If your parents are still alive, call them and give them love. It doesn't matter if they have been less than loving in the past. How you react is what's important, and offering love and compassion is never wrong.

What does all this have to do with the internal arts? Nothing. And everything. It has a lot to do with the art of life, one of the most internal arts of all.

Nothing is more important than family, and nothing is more important than treating others well. When you begin to think that other things are more important, including tai chi or other martial arts, you're straying from the path. When you feel the urge to reach out with negativity or anger, you're losing sight of how precious every moment is, and how each moment must be treasured and valued. By being angry or critical of others or mean, you're wasting time that you'll never get back.

Seeing my mom in that state -- unable to move and dependent on others to clean her and take care of her -- drove home the fragility of life. Some day, we may all be in that situation. It's something to keep in mind as we deal with those we come in contact with each day.


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Wally Newman

Sifu Ken,
I think what you are saying here is really courageous and the coolest thing you could ever say about your mom. I often wonder about me karma too. When I am old and laid up, will my kid visit me with nice things to say.

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