Five years ago I suffered a stroke in my left eye. I was rushed from eye doctor to eye specialist, to neuro-ophthamologist. After months of probes and tests, they determined that the substantial vision loss was probably permanent. However, they could not find any cause at all for the stroke. You know me… perfect health. It was an apparent mystery to the specialists.
About five days after the initial vision loss, my granddaughter, Mia, two years old at the time, suffered both a stroke and an aneurism on the brain. Miraculously she was admitted to Froedtert Hospital where she was attended to at length. Amazing miracle surgeries were performed. The diagnosis, however, was a difficult one for all of us. It eventually became apparent that she has a genetic abnormality only more recently studied, and still in its infancy regarding medical understanding. It is known as Osler-Weber-Rendu, or HHT. In short, there is a vascular weakness that usually manifests itself in aneurisms, or burst blood vessels. These can occur in several key organs throughout the body. Unfortunately, Mia has these vascular weaknesses and subsequent bleeds in the brain. My daughter, Jenny (Mia’s mother), and both of Mia’s sisters, Bella and Emma, also have this HHT. My son, Robert, and his two sons, Kaidan and Karson, have also been diagnosed with HHT. To-date, they do not seem to have any symptoms other than Robert having excessive nosebleeds almost daily.
Initially, in light of the diagnosis for Jenny and the girls, it seemed that my loss of vision may be due to the same abnormality induced by HHT. It is probable that the vascular stroke to my optic nerve was a result of a small bleed… failure for the optic nerve to receive the blood supply necessary to live and function. Those cells died and the vision was lost. On the bright side, I still had my right eye. With perfect 20/20 vision in that eye, I was able to compensate; most others never even knew I had a vision problem.
Jump forward five years to April of 2014. I suffered yet another vascular stroke; this time it was in the right eye. Many weeks later: expert after expert, tests and probes, and, as before, there is no apparent reason for the stroke. Health is perfect. And yet….
Unfortunately, this time there is no third eye to compensate. This is a relatively substantial loss. Very many things are now different. Driving, at the moment, is a real challenge. We will have to wait for a final assessment on that when the swelling behind the right eye eventually goes down. My Harley-Davidson, the ShaoLin Softtail Custom, I fear, will have to be sold. At the moment, many friends and family are assisting in driving me around. I am doing absolutely no driving at night. Every day it seems there is something else that I have taken for granted for 63 years which I must now come to see differently. No pun intended. Riding a bicycle, cutting the grass, watching Mecum Auto Auction on the TV, and reading… yes, reading. I am an avid reader. Woodworking, working on the car, watching martial artists movies. Fishing?! The list is probably quite extensive. The adjustments necessary keep on surfacing.
Fortunately, I do not believe it has affected my own martial arts. Obviously, some Northern ShaoLin single leg and jumping movements are a bit of a challenge, especially the jump spinning kicks. Balance is tied in very closely to the eyes. But thankfully, my teaching remains a great pleasure. It always has been; I love it now as before. Trying to access some of my notes is a bit more difficult, but several instructors are stepping up to help with that as well. Transitions. Change is growth, and I have always welcomed growth. New experiences lead to understanding.
And then… a while ago I went out to sit on the deck. I closed my eyes. I listened. There was sound everywhere. There were traffic sounds, birds, a lawn mower, children playing, a breeze in the trees, a wind chime – in short, a cacophony of sounds. In the past I would have been engaged in what I could see from the deck. I would have been engaged in my own mind with whatever thoughts were currently begging to be noticed. The sounds, all of them, would have been relegated to a relatively flat background, to being “white noise.” They would have been there, but not there. This night was different. I could hear. I chose to listen first to the birds. There was one with a very distinct song directly out from the deck, probably about 100 feet out in the trees. It would sing/speak, pause, and then speak again. During the pause, another bird from off to my left, perhaps about 150 to 200 feet out replied. That bird had another very distinctive voice, another species of bird. And yet, it was as if the two were communicating. A third bird, different song again, chirped in about 20 or so feet from the second bird. They were singing, or talking…it certainly seemed like communication. There were pauses. They were taking turns. I was sure of it. It was beautiful. I could only imagine the discourse.
I could listen specifically to the traffic. Several blocks away there is a very well-traveled road that runs parallel to our yard and the deck. I could hear which direction the traffic was moving. I could tell how fast the individual cars were moving. I could even distinguish certain vehicles from others based on what I could hear. I listened to a lawnmower. I could figure out, to a degree, where the property being mowed was relative to mine. About two blocks out. I could tell if the mower was moving toward or away from me. I could hear as it ran relatively parallel to me. I could determine on which side of the house he was moving faster, and which side he was obviously cutting around or along “things” that required increasing and decreasing speeds, as well as turning in and out.
These sounds, and others, were captivating. They were layered and I could separate them. They were three dimensional. Frequencies and amplitudes I would have never noticed were not only present, but they were enhancing the experience of being out on the deck. The entire experience had more breadth and depth. It was new to me. It was exciting. It was enriching. I was a science teacher. I taught scientific method and investigation, and I emphasized observation – using your senses to gather data. Paying attention to detail is a critical component of the scientific method. Wow. This was a revelation. It was wonderful.
In the early seventies, many martial arts practitioners were captivated by the TV series Kung Fu starring David Carridine. A particular scene in the pilot was most memorable. In it, the young novitiate monk, Cain, was being taught awareness by blind Master Po. Master Po asked his student to close his eyes, to listen, and then to relate to the Master what he heard. Cain responded that he heard the birds, and the water in the stream as well. Master Po asked Cain, “Do you hear the grasshopper at your feet?” Cain opened his eyes, amazed. He said, “No. I do not hear it. How is it you hear it?” Master Po responded: “How is it that you do not?” From that moment forward, Master Po referred affectionately to Kwai Cain as “Grasshopper.” That scene never made more sense than that moment on the deck.
In over four decades in the martial arts world, I have been blessed to engage with an untold myriad of martial artists and instructors. And over the years, a number of them have experienced often severe setbacks in their training and teaching. Many have passed. I, however, had never prepared myself for a time like this when my world would be so changed. The experience has been mind boggling. I have spent decades training myself to not make decisions when emotional. Too often we make critical and life-changing decisions while happy, angry, hurt, sad, frustrated, ecstatic, etc. Often, we come to regret them. The Chinese refer to the logical, or cognitive part of the brain, as the Yi, and the more emotional part of the brain as the spirit, or Shen. For the first few weeks following this second stroke, the Shen was definitely in control. The balance of Yi and Shen I have worked for decades to maintain was a bit askew, and amplified further by the Prednisone steroids the doctors had prescribed. Whoa… what mood benders! Up one day, and down the next. Try as I would, balancing my emotions was extremely difficult. I apologize to those of you with whom I may have been a bit overly emotional; it was not me.
I am finally off of the steroids and what a difference. Right now I am attempting to sort through all of the changes. I am trying to find what is the same and what is not. And, as always, I turn to the Tao Te Ching, the book by Lao Tsu.
“Under heaven all can see beauty as beauty only because there is ugliness.
All can know good as good only because there is evil.
Therefore having and not having arise together.
Difficult and easy complement each other…”
~ Chapter 2
“The five colors blind the eyes.
The five tones deafen the ears.
The five flavors dull the taste.
Racing and hunting madden the mind.
Precious things lead one astray.
Therefore the sage is guided by what he feels and not by what he sees.
He lets go of that and chooses this….”
~ Chapter 12
“…When you are at one with the Tao,
The Tao welcomes you.
When you are at one with virtue,
The virtue is always there.
When you are at one with loss,
The loss is experienced willingly…”
~ Chapter 23
Though the loss of a significant amount of sight is certainly a serious difficulty, in the grand scheme of things, I am blessed. I always have been. I have family and a world of friends around the globe. I have opportunities and I have support. I have a wonderful life and, I have love. I am truly blessed.
As this one door closes, yet another opens. This is my belief. I may not see things as I once did, but, perhaps, I will now see them more clearly.