a kaddish for terry dobson

There’s no reason for me to remember. There’s no reason to forget. I knew the man for 15 minutes. The last 15 minutes, it turned out. Riki, his partner, told me at SF General Hospital that night, that in those 15 minutes, I had gotten the best of Terry Dobson.

Maybe it’s the focus on the kaddish right now that brings him to mind. No matter. It’s still a pretty bizarre tale.

I was told to go to his Teaching at Suginama Aikikai that night. It wasn’t a request. It was August, 1992. I had no business being there. I was downright crappy at Aikido and was always going to be crappy at Aikido — although, for me, the progress was phenomenal. I was soaking it up — O Sensei’s poetry, in particular, moved me. Wada-sensei’s ritual stirring of the universe, was just that: stirring. I loved Aikido. Derived my sense of balance, aesthetic, and righteousness from this martial art. And more than anything else, I was moved by the physical acts of resonance that were possible to cultivate.

The only problem was that I couldn’t really ‘do’ it. Or do it well. Or well enough. I was good at feeling sorry for myself. Spent plenty of time crying in the tiny changing area. Until I was told, more than once at that point, that crying in the changing area was just part of the discipline. It meant that we were still there. Trying.

So. Call it low self-esteem. I didn’t feel I belonged at Suginama Aikikai, which seemed to wreak of more testosterone than any other dojo in the city. I certainly had no business training, even for one night, with Terry Dobson.

But I went.

And if you want to read what I wrote, you can find it at Aikido Today Magazine: the journal of the art of Aikido, Vol. 6, No. 5. If you can find it at all. Aikido Today is now defunct. And all 100 issues have just been made available through Arete Press at aiki.com.  You should also read Riki’s book  [amazon_link id=”158394270X” target=”_blank” ]An Obese White Gentleman in No Apparent Distress[/amazon_link] .

So. Those 15 minutes that were mine. Yes, he was charismatic. Brilliant. Compelling. All those good words. Yes, I took notes on every word he said during his Teaching. Yes, I watched every single person listen, but not hear him. Yes, he spoke of nothing if not how to face your death. Aikido as a practice on how to meet death with integrity. Not to flinch, not to turn away. According to Riki, he had been immersed in some version of this teaching for at least a decade. But not like this. That night he was explicit.

And then he fell into a coma. Right afterword. Riki said he’d been waiting for that moment for years. Anticipating it. And here am I, Doctor Nobody, still thinking about Terry Dobson. The Terry Dobson I knew for the duration of that Teaching, and our 15 minutes afterward. It just doesn’t make sense.

What he said was, “There you are! I haven’t seen you in so long!”

“We haven’t met yet,” I replied. “We don’t get to meet until next time.”

Now, why did I say that?

I was called to the hospital in the middle of the night. I had his last words, his last Teaching. For some reason, no one had filmed the event. So my notes were all that remained.

In the middle of the night, I sat with Riki, and Terry’s kids and read them my notes. Notes that I had taken just for me. Filled with attitude that was not just his. The first words of his I heard were:

“The only reason you came in here is to be able to meet your death with integrity and relaxation.”

“The uke,” he said, “the uke is there to bring you your death.”

Which is a bit ironic, if I think of it now. For in meeting our uke, it is our uke who is always thrown, while we ourselves remain standing, having moved — only slightly — off line.

Were we supposed to meet our death and what, win?

“The uke grabs with sincerity,” Terry said. “His ki pours through him. Honor his direction and his intensity. That’s what draws him in. Take advantage of his imbalance and his desire to regain his balance. … Make sure that he’s going over nice.”

“The name of the game is ki,” he said. “Power and protection start very simple and direct, with working at making sure that your goddamn stupid ego isn’t crapping through.”

“We’re working on stillness,” he said. “Make a decision to be there.” But as I recall, nobody was really listening. Maybe they’d all heard Terry Dobson’s death spiel before. But I hadn’t.

So. Okay.

Meet death with integrity.
Intensity.
Don’t flinch.
Don’t turn away.
Step slightly off line.
Use his imbalance.
Keep goddamn stupid ego out of it.
Be there.
Achieve stillness.

Fine. I’ll do that. Now I know how to handle death. No problem.

So. Here’s the troubling part. You’ve probably guessed it: It’s that response I gave him:

“We don’t meet until next time.”

Which every one I know is quite clear about. And I won’t even say it out loud here. I don’t know why I said it. It just seemed true. I think I meant that I just wasn’t ready yet for Terry Dobson. Or maybe it meant that he just wasn’t ready for me.

My friend (who had a dojo of his own), the one who forced me to attend that night, was pretty clear about it.

“Terry, he said, “had been waiting for release for a very long time. And then, he checked in with you, and he was gone.”

What does that mean?  Did I kill him?

“You know what that means,” my friend said, rolling his eyes.  “You know what it means.”

And he explained all about ‘checking in.’  About passing between the worlds.  We said our hello, and we said our goodbye.  And we would recognize each other.  Next time.

Thinking about Terry Dobson makes me want to sit right down and sob really really hard. It’s not really about him. And it’s not really about me.

I just don’t believe in next time.

About mira

Mira Z. Amiras is Professor of Comparative Religious Studies and founder of the Middle East Studies Program at San Jose State University. She is past-president of the Society for the Anthropology of Consciousness, and has served on the Executive Council of the American Anthropological Association. She is co-founder, with Ovid Jacob, of Beit Malkhut, a study group in Jewish sacred text. She's most attached to the creatures of her body and her household — first and foremost, her kids, of course: Michael and Rayna — and then the other folks large and small of various species, including Roshi and Vlad, a whole lot of hummingbirds, the old parrot who lives next door, and a beautiful garden that does what it will.
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4 Responses to a kaddish for terry dobson

  1. erin says:

    Why do you suppose that you were summoned to his hospital bed?

    My friend Lori made this comment to your post on its link in my Facebook feed:

    I quite like the “death speech”. I think if one substituted “life” for “death” here, it would be just as relevant.

  2. mira says:

    I was summoned because I had his last words and his last Teaching — I was the only one who took notes, and as I mentioned, nobody was filming.

    Meeting your death with Integrity — is a way of living, not just a way of dying. ‘It’s a lot Like Dancing’ is I think the way he would put it. That, at least, was the title of his book on Aikido.

  3. Pingback: Recent "Kaddish" Recordings

  4. mira says:

    Four months after posting my Kaddish for Terry Dobson, there has been a huge upsurge in traffic coming to read it. The thing is, I have no idea why. It’s not Terry’s birthday. It’s not his yahrtzeit. It’s not O Sensei’s birthday. And it’s not quite the anniversary of his death (April 26th).

    So what is going on here? Please do leave a comment if you’ve got a clue.

    Thanks!
    Mira

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