What can I say?

Dennis and I last year.

“They found this growth in my jaw… referred me to an oral surgeon… Sensei, it’s cancer,” Dennis said to me. I was shocked and devastated. This one-two punch was followed by a long pause and then, “They’re going to remove a lot of my lower jaw next week…”

People who know me well, know that I am rarely at a loss for words. However, Tuesday night as I’m driving to dinner with a young lady, I have absolutely no idea what to say. I want to say something profound, as I am his Sensei. I think I managed a trite and lame, “Jesus man, that’s awful.” and other placating crap. I really had no freaking idea what to say to him. What the hell do you say? He tactfully ended my turmoil by saying he had to go, but would call me back later.

I’ve always called Dennis “Man Mountain” and it stuck to him. He’s an older guy, gray hair, and kind of looks like an evil Santa Claus. He is a mountain of a man, but also looks like some old fashioned prospector who’d been working hard all his life. However, he’s one of the few guys with whom I would fight back to back. A man I would trust with my life, a man of integrity, and nearly infinite resolve. He’s nearly always upbeat, often quiet, never boastful, and never complains. Yes, I know it sounds like I’m waxing poetic, but this guy is the real deal.

When he became my student years ago, I didn’t really think he would work out. He was too rough, stronger than an Ox, and I seriously questioned whether he would ever be gentle or graceful enough to perform Aikido at the higher levels. Judging by his strength and power now, he must have been frightening 25 years ago. He was an MP back in the day, and is not afraid to mix it up with anyone. I know, because we have. To be honest, at first I simply tolerated him because he was so difficult to work with. He was so uncooperative, and in order to get techniques to work on him I would have to be much rougher than I wanted to be. I feared injuring him during practice, but also worried that I would not be able to complete the techniques without injuring him. In Aikido, this is simply not allowed. However, unwittingly he became my foil. Though I don’t think he was conscious of it, he forced me to raise my Aikido to new levels. Basically, if it worked on Dennis, it would work on anyone. In addition to this, he affected my psyche as well. I was regularly humbled by his ability to resist my techniques. He kept my ego in check.

Anyway, over the years, he stuck it out. He was always there. He was and is my number one student. He set an example of respect, humility, cooperation, and dedication for all of the other students to look up to. He became the best student I’ve ever had. He mellowed, learned to be graceful, and always showed respect though I never asked for it. The school was located in a beach town, so class numbers would dwindle every summer. Most people would rather go to the beach than practice Aikido in the summer heat. There were many classes where he was my only student. Sometimes we’d practice Aikido and sometimes just go to dinner together. He’s had as large an influence on me as I have had on him. In fact, he’s one of the reasons I started bicycling as he is an avid cyclist.

So, they’re going to operate on him and replace the cancerous jaw with steel. The thing is Dennis has a jaw of steel already. I know because I’ve hit it. During Randori (the Aikido version of sparring), I’ve been forced to hit him to distract him so I could accomplish techniques. However, if you hit Dennis square in the mouth, he doesn’t even blink. He has a jaw that makes Clint Eastwood look like a Pee Wee Herman.

I don’t know what’s going to happen. Dennis is the positive one, not me. All day Wednesday I thought about what to say to him. Do I tell him how much he means to me? Do I tell him how much I love him? He’s old-school and might not take that all that well, even though he already knows. Do I pretend to be positive about this in the hopes that his positive attitude increases his chances of success? Can I fake it? Should I?

I called him late Wednesday and he was just like normal. He had a positive attitude, as much as anyone in his situation could, and was asking about my life and what’s going on down here. He told me that he would know this weekend when his surgery was and he would keep me in the loop, as well as have his wife call me immediately afterward with an update.

Then there was a dreaded lull in conversation… This was the moment I should say something profound… I centered myself and said, “Dennis, I’m really concerned about this surgery…” He asked why.

“Well, you know how they’re going to give you that steel jaw?”

“Yeah,” he said.

“Do you think after the operation you’ll feel compelled to hunt down Sarah Connor?”

and he laughed…..

After he laughed he said, “No, but I think I’ll audition to be the villain in the next Bond movie.”

Good luck Big Man.

*** Note: I actually wrote this more than six months ago. I decided not to post it to the blog because I was trying to separate my personal writing from technical writing. However, Dennis’ story, which isn’t finished yet, taught me a lot about myself and the world in general. So, I’m posting it up here, and will continue with updates so that we can all learn from him.

More to come.

3 comments to What can I say?

  • Don’t care how “old school” he is or how much he already suspects your respect for him. Sometimes it’s just nice to have validation of others if you’re being shaken to the very core. You don’t have to do a hallmark movie, just an extension of what you already do best with Dennis.

    I would hope you’ve discovered you are where you need to be now in reference to your comment on the separation of personal and professional being. I question if true division is even achievable for those who tend to live out loud. Besides I thought the whole point was to let everyone know “The water is great, jump in!” as opposed to “The weather is nice, wish you were here”. Just my tainted take on things.

    Anyway I will keep your “Man Mountain” in my prayers and thoughts.

  • JeffV

    Wow. This wasn’t what I expected when I came in this morning. My heart goes out to your friend.

  • Jeremy

    Liked the article.

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