To Cameron Conaway “being present” is a matter of life and death.
“Hey brother, I’ve been diagnosed with a rare brain cancer. It’s deadly, man. I’m going to review treatment options but it doesn’t look good.”
Years ago I met a man named Daryn Clark through an online mixed martial arts forum. Our conversation quickly moved to emails, phone calls and then Skype. The more I learned of him the more I wanted to learn from him.
Daryn was the founder of an organization that helped disabled people throughout Louisiana find employment and access to various services so that they felt like productive members of their society. A lifelong martial artist, he started a class at his dojo specifically to help those with cerebral palsy find the joy of connecting with their bodies and with members of their community. Daryn had a master’s degree in Marriage Counseling, enjoyed green smoothies and the sheer love he had for his family meant that he could barely talk about them without getting emotional. He was a 49-year-old man who felt as deeply as any person I’d ever met, a man capable of putting a physical beating on most anyone in the rare event that the situation called for it. He was a man who took seriously the martial arts gesture of placing one closed fist inside one open hand. To him, the closed fist should be continually sharpened but always used as a last resort, and the open hand — a symbol of peace — should inhabit all aspects of a man’s life.
About six months after we’d met in that online forum I was set to move to Thailand. Our friendship had blossomed into a mentorship and Daryn was the listening ear I so desperately needed during this time. Though we’d never physically met, our Skype calls continued throughout my first 18 months in abroad. Around this time I began to notice misspellings in his writing, and what I took to be contemplative pauses when he spoke. I just chalked it up to him being busy. After all, he was running a wildly successful business and had another in the draft stages, was training and teaching at the dojo and spending time with his wife and three kids.
It was on a Skype call like any other that Daryn broke the news about his brain cancer.
In response I mumbled something about his warrior spirit, his training and green smoothies, the love of his family and friends. The very idea that this man would soon die threw me in the muddled middle between accepting, fighting and ignoring.
Time in Bangkok can move at warp speed. The stimulation is endless. In a single block you’ll see hookers and the greatest grilled chicken stand and fluorescent lights flickering and hundreds of pink taxis and their horns and the orange-vested motorcycle drivers revving and zig-zagging up onto the sidewalks to avoid traffic and the man with no arms and no legs who drags himself across the polluted streets while biting down on a red plastic cup filled with change and then there are the jackhammers and the three-legged dogs behind you and the delicious spiced scent of coconut curry competing with warmed sewage for your attention.
Months passed before I realized that Daryn and I had only exchanged a few emails. Then the one from his wife: If I wanted to see him in person I had to come now.
I flew from Bangkok to Shreveport. Daryn and I spent one week together. Total bonding, except for one part I wasn’t sure about. I’d visited his office, met his friends, went into his gym and spent time with his family. But by evening he was exhausted and even more than during the day he simply couldn’t string words together. So there we were, two dudes sitting on the couch watching fights. Three, four, five hours would pass without either of us saying a word. Pure silence. When I tried to say something the words would hang flat in the air so I no longer tried.
This is when guilt crept in.
At week’s end, I sat down to breakfast with Daryn’s wife and with tears streaming down my face I said, “I hope I didn’t intrude on you and your husband’s final days together. I never meant –”
She cut me off before I could finish.
“Every night, after you two watched the fights, he’d come into the bedroom with the biggest smile on his face. This was the greatest week we’ve had with him since his diagnosis. And it’s because you were present. You weren’t just here, you were present.”
The warrior has since entered his next phase, and until my next phase I vow to never just show up. Being present breathes life into all moments. Even those that are silent. And especially those that are going gently into that good night.
–In honor of Daryn Clark
–Photo: Daryn Clark, Cameron Conaway