My Mother, the Sensei

(Copyright c. 2000 Paul Turse.  All rights reserved.) 

        She stood not more than five feet tall, a height which was truncated by her scoliosis and advanced arthritis.  Her gray hair, somewhat thinned out as a result of chemotherapy, still adorned her head like a silver crown.  And despite pushing eighty, whenever she could stand from her wheelchair and walk on her own, she carried herself in a regal manner.  Although she was not a judo teacher, she was a sensei.  The word sensei means “teacher,” but it does not have to indicate a martial arts instructor.  Sensei means “before life.”  Thus, anyone who lives before another and imparts wisdom to that individual is indeed a sensei.   It seems that most students never appreciate or truly understand what a teacher has imparted to them until many years after the lessons and perhaps not until after the teacher has departed this life.  So it was with me.  The two greatest lessons that my mother taught me were, oddly enough, during the last days of her life as she lay bedridden, slowly experiencing the final effects of terminal cancer.  As the cancer began to spread throughout her body, she began to ramble in a somewhat illogical and incoherent pattern.  I had taken off from work to be at her side for six months during her ordeal, so I had plenty of time to try to make some sense out of what she was saying.  Some times, I think she knew what she doing and was putting me on.  Whether she intended it or not, as if in the solution of an esoteric koan, the moment of enlightenment struck.  Satori comes where and when you least expect it. Toward the end of her days, she began telling everyone that she had two sons—twins—but never told anyone.  Since I was an only child, I found this concept of a twin brother amusing. 

        When I asked her what the name of her other son was, she replied, “Paul.” 

        Since my name is “Paul,” I asked why she named us both the same. 

        Easy answer:  “So no one would know that I had twins.” 

        The dichotomy soon became clear.  There was the “good” Paul, and there was the “bad” Paul.  I guess it is not too difficult to guess that I was the bad Paul, the one who made her take medicine and who woke her from a sound sleep in the middle of the night to change her bed pads.  Of course, when I cooked one of her special dishes or got her a hunk of cheese, one of her favorite snacks, I became my alter ego, the “good” Paul. 

        One day when things were a bit boring, in somewhat of a perverse manner, I began to say nasty things about my “twin.” 

        “Sure,” I complained in mock despair, “you always liked that good Paul better that you liked me.” 

        “Oh, no.  That’s not so,” she responded. 

        “You like that ‘sissy’ better that you like me,” I moaned.

        “Don’t you say bad things about your brother; that’s not nice.  He is not a sissy,” she would argue.  “I like you both the same.” 

        “Yeah,” I continued, “then how come you left him the big house in Westchester and all your money, and you left me with this dump, referring to our modest senior citizen unit?”

        “Oh no, I left you some money,” she said proudly. 

       “Oh yeah?” I asked.  “How much?” 

        “You're gonna be surprised,” she teased. 

        “How much?” I demanded in mock concern. 

        She reflected for a moment. “Let me see . . . three million dollars,” she said emphatically. 

        Of course, I rushed off the bank as soon as I could.  Not really.  I had kept her books for nearly forty years, and I am sure that I would not have missed that slight accounting oversight.  I knew that there was no inheritance.  But as I laughed, I suddenly began to wonder why we always think of an inheritance as something material—an estate or money.  Isn’t there such a thing as a spiritual inheritance?  I knew then, if I had inherited even half of my mother’s courage and compassion, that I was the richest man in the world.  And you can’t take that kind of wealth to the bank.  That was my first lesson. 

        The second moment of enlightenment came on the night my mother died.  Although she did not know that she had terminal cancer, she began to sense that her time was near a few days before the inevitable.  She told me one night that two men were going to come for her in the night.  She was not afraid of them, but she did not want them to hurt her. 

        “Promise me,” she said as if she were a little girl, “you won’t let them hurt me.”

        I smugly told her not to worry because I knew judo and, if they came to the door, I would kick their butts.  The ironic arrogance of my boast was soon brought to light when, approximately two hours after she had died, I heard an eerie and ominous knock at the door.  When I faced the two undertakers who had come for her, a grim reality swept over me:  I could not protect her.  Despite nearly forty years of training and holding a sixth degree black belt, I was powerless in the face of death.  None of the secret training techniques I had learned in the Orient prepared me for this moment.  It was then that I came to the conclusion that there had to be more to training than just the physical and that the only way to combat death is through spiritual strength.  She did not need me to fight for her, for she was now protected by God’s might. 

        As strong as we think we are, we still need others and a spiritual force outside ourselves.  The irony is that everyone, including me, thought that my mother needed me.  But now that she is gone, I realize how much I needed her and how much I had learned from her.  Yes, my mother was a sensei. 


        It is in my mother's memory that I have created and dedicated this Web site.  For it was through her death that I have finally begun to come to terms with the spirituality of the martial arts. Here is a poem that I would like to share with you.  Although it was written for my mother, the butterfly could be a universal symbol of mankind’s flight through life on the way toward spiritual transformation.  Unlike Dylan Thomas, who urges his father to “rage against the light,” I exhort the butterfly to “fly toward the light.” 


From the despair of life’s dark cocoon,

Into heaven’s light you shall fly soon.

Your upward flight with wings asunder

Gives the world a moment of wonder.

Fly, fly into that eternal night;

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might.

No stable rose petal upon which to land.

No strong wind to lend a hand.

Although I was not there to allay your final fear,

You must know that I was always near.

But no longer will you fly alone.

Soon you will find your flowery home.

Fly, fly into that eternal light;

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might.

The strength of your fragile wing

Will soon cause the angels to sing.

Always teaching right from wrong,

In your honor I sing this song.

Never once did your heart harden.

You will be blessed in heaven’s rose garden.

Although the eagles of this world much higher soar,

It is the butterfly’s flight of which the angels roar.

Always flying above the norm,

God’s image will be your final form.

Fly, fly toward that eternal light.

You need not fear the men who come in the night,

For you are now protected by God’s might. 

        (Dedicated to Adeline C. Turse (d. August 12, 1999)


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