Cameron Conaway offers a moving and personal dedication to his mentor, martial artist Daryn Clark, who despite fighting brain cancer still dedicates his life to helping others.
This is a glimpse into a day of a man recently diagnosed with late grade Gliomatosis Cerebri, a rare and highly aggressive brain cancer whose adult patients seem to have between 2-12 months to live. He is a man who, in the span of a few hours, underwent full brain radiation, took his chemotherapy pills then stepped out of the cancer clinic and into the dojo to teach students who have Cerebral Palsy.
When I found out he was terminally ill, I flew in from Bangkok to be with Daryn Clark, the man who for the past two years had become a father figure and mentor in my life. We met through a discussion forum as we were both studying to become certified with the MMA Conditioning Association. Daryn’s accolades are impressive. As a martial artist he’s a 4th degree black belt in Yon Dan Isshinryu and Dragon Seni-Jutsu- Situational Fighting, a 1st degree black belt in Sho Dan Half Circle Jujitsu and the founder of WhatsYourFight.com. He has a Master’s degree in Family & Marriage Counseling and is the CEO of Southern Ingenuity, a company that helps seniors, children and disabled persons receive healthcare support.
Though this diversity certainly intrigued me, it was his personality that struck a chord with me. In the forums he was curious, open to learning and always asking questions. He had so much wisdom within him but he didn’t force it on anyone. As the weeks passed Daryn and I began Skype conversations—he in Louisiana to my Virginia. My move to Thailand with my fiancée was soon approaching and due to time constraints it was impossible for Daryn and I to physically see each other until I returned.
Our relationship grew over the next 18 months through emails, Skype sessions, phone calls and Facebook messages. I came to actually love the guy, and it got to the point where we let each other know it before ending our conversations, “Love you, man.”
I now find myself writing while in his living room in Homer, Louisiana. One month ago today he passed out unconscious in the dojo and was sent by ambulance to the hospital. After exhaustive tests they came to the current diagnosis. He’s now in his second week of daily full brain radiation and I simply couldn’t wait any longer to see him. He and his wife just left to drive to Shreveport for treatment and I could not feel more inspired by what I’m witnessing from Daryn’s daily life. Take yesterday, for example.
The drive from Homer to the Willis-Knighton Cancer Center was a quiet one. We know how we feel about each other, we know the diagnosis and we know what it all means. We also know that this feels damn good—two men enjoying the open road with dense forest on either side, the wind blowing our hair as we tapped our hands to the beat of radio music, together. After check-in, the radiation tech allowed me in to see the machine before Daryn got all strapped into it. The room was white, totally void of emotion, yet Daryn’s smile seemed to paint the walls every color imaginable. It made sense. Here was a man who, when I first asked him how he was after the diagnosis, said: “It’s so interesting. There’s so much to learn.” I left the room and some 240 seconds later Daryn walked out with the same smile across his face, tasting something metallic in his mouth and ready to roll. Literally.
We drove to downtown Minden, Louisiana where we pulled up to Clyde Stanley’s Martial Arts. Awaiting us were Edward and Nathan, two students with severe cerebral palsy that Daryn has been been working with for many years. When they first started visiting the dojo, they didn’t have the strength to pull themselves into their wheelchairs. Now, somehow, they look like gymnasts as they muscle themselves in. Sensei Allen and Sensei Robinson helped lead the class, the most beautiful martial arts class I’ve experienced in my life. No, this rivals the beauty of any moment in my life.
At first I paced around nervously taking pictures. I didn’t know how to get involved. Then it was like looking at a Turner painting. I leaned against a wall and was totally mesmerized by the magnificence of it all, wanting to get closer but frozen still. I watched the instructors and students laugh at jokes, watched them grunt with muscular exertion as they pulled and pushed together to get stronger. And there was Daryn, rolling around in the painting he created, rolling around regardless of how his own body and mind are slowing down under the brutal regimen of cancer and radiation and chemo all at the same time.
After this class, Daryn stuck around and helped instruct back-to-back kids’ classes. It was not a nuisance or one more thing to do. Nor was it boring even though he has spent his life doing it. There is no belt color to represent this level of mastery; there is no higher level a martial artist can reach. After class he smiled, wiped the sweat from his brow, grabbed his karate bag and we hit the road back to Homer. Another silent road trip filled with more emotion and words than any conversation. During the drive I reflected on how there are times in life that break parts of us—and I’m broken enough now to cry as I write this. But the more I live the more I learn that we need to be broken now and again. The greatest mosaics are made from broken pieces. We put the windows down, drummed beats on the dashboard and an African proverb came to me: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
Daryn’s family requests that donations on his behalf be sent to Elizabeth’s Hope: A group dedicated to finding cures for inoperable brain tumors in children and adolescents.