Darkest chapter in my story so far, where what comes up must come down.
For as long as I can remember, I have always loved martial arts. It is my passion, pure and simple, as it is what truly makes me feel alive. Regardless of style, all martial arts bring with them a seemingly endless array of challenges and rewards – which is what makes it all worth the effort. The thrill of successfully landing an unexpected counterattack in sparring, the satisfaction of learning a form and performing it with the correct balance of power and focus, triumphing over your own fear in pushing yourself with the more acrobatic moves, the redemption of holding your own against someone who beat you in the past… Along with the gratifying sense of picking up new skills and deepening your understanding, it all hooks you in and keeps you moving forward. Make no mistake – it’s a neverending journey as there isn’t enough time in a lifetime to learn everything, or master all disciplines.
As a fresh Kung Fu student, I was living the dream. Having quickly risen through the early belts, I was starting to get a grasp of the principles that my style of Kung Fu was built upon and how to handle the basic weapons. At the same time I was still keeping my Capoeira and acrobatic skills up to scratch by meeting up with old friends for tricks and games. I even started competing in all-style competitions, and didn’t do too badly considering it was a first for me. Riding the momentum of all this I started to draft choreography for a potential fight scene and even recruited a couple of friends. In addition, my Sifu asked me if I wanted to be part of the demonstration team for the upcoming Chinese New Year celebrations. This was a bit flattering as I was still a Kung Fu rookie, so I was determined to give it my best.
Still haven’t given up on this one yet. Maybe one day I can go back and finish it…
I remember that week well, as I’ve gone over it in my head several times since then. During the week I went to acrobatics class with my friends and was working on this specific jumping kick where you kick with such speed that you actually land on the same leg that you’re kicking with (this trick is normally called a ‘540’, as you rotate one and a half revolution during the kick). Then on the weekend I performed the Single Broadsword form as part the school’s demonstration, which went well. Several of my friends came to the demonstration and I got good feedback on my form. So far, so great.
Then the next week when I showed up for regular practise, I could no longer hold a low stance – my right knee started to hurt and swelled up for no apparent reason. Giving it a few days’ rest didn’t help, so I visited a physiotherapist but to no avail as he could not isolate what the cause would be. After seeing some doctor with terrible bedside manners I was referred to get an MRI scan, which did not give overly clear results. I then saw another doctor, followed by a knee specialist. As the diagnosis of my injury could not be isolated, and I was reluctant to undergo any surgery until a proper diagnosis could be made (as I heard stories about patients who actually got worse after surgery), my physio advised me to keep the weight off the leg for a long time to see if it would heal naturally. As cartilage damage was involved, a long time would be needed to let the knee heal on its own. And although I did visit the gym to keep the upper body going, it became more and more sporadic as weight training doesn’t hold a candle against martial arts training.
It was shocking to see how much spare time I suddenly had. I took the opportunity to catch up on all the movies, games and books I had been meaning to enjoy and for a while it was great to recharge the batteries and relax for a change. Finally I had the time to go through old and new footage from the acrobatics classes and compile a montage video – I even included the aforementioned 540 kick, showing at 2:35. But not before long, I became restless from not being able to do any proper martial arts training… a feeling that I would become intimately familiar with going forward. Life didn’t stop though; I started saving up for an engagement ring so I could propose to Pipoca, something that escalated pretty darn quick when we found out that she was pregnant with our son. The proposal itself was pretty memorable, as I connived with Pipoca’s Capoeira mestre to make it seem like I suddenly felt the urge to play a Capoeira game again, in spite of my bad knee. The look on her face as I whipped out the diamond ring halfway through the game was almost priceless (heavy on the almost, bloody ring didn’t come cheap).
As the months passed, it became increasingly clear that my knee was not going to heal on its own and the muscular rehabilitation was not doing any good either. It seemed more and more likely that I was facing a future without martial arts. Sure, there was always the option of taking up a style without much stress on the knee joint such as boxing or Tai Chi, but it would not be the same. For the first time since my teenage years, I was living a life without the passion inherent in exploring the arts and the self-expression it would bring. It is so very true that our greatest strength is also our greatest weakness, and having this break forced on me made me realise how my training had become a fundamental part of my identity. Always apart from my studies and work duties, martial arts had always been the most enticing aspect of my life – challenging me from day one, and bringing satisfaction that nothing else could. But now that my strongest talent was no longer available to me, what was left? What could I base any self-respect on? The answer was of course that I had plenty of other talents and accomplishments that I could take strength from, but it all had a lacklustre feel to it in comparison. And I know that this was far from a severe injury, such as a broken leg or becoming lame, but it hit me where I was most vulnerable.
Between struggling to stay optimistic, fear of losing my job due to the ongoing global financial crisis, and preparing myself for fatherhood I was near a mental breakdown. There were highlights (such as trying out Kendo as well as western medieval combat in full armour, but more about that later), and every month I would still visit my old Kung Fu school to watch my friends and fellow students grade for higher belts. The term ‘bittersweet’ doesn’t quite cover the jumble of emotions I would feel as I watched them meet their own challenges, surpassing me in the process. I even made my own practise weapons, padded versions of swords and staffs, and invited friends for some sparring on our building’s rooftop. This turned out to be a great pastime, but the strain on the knee was too great to do it on a regular basis. Still, it made me reflect on the weapons training I had had so far with newfound respect.
But what really kept my mental health in check was my fiancé and friends. Pipoca was always there for me every step of the way, in spite of dealing with pregnancy and her own trials. My old brother in arms Sabao and a couple of other friends from the Capoeira days started coming around to my place to hang out for dinner and games, something that turned into a weekly ritual. Although they could do nothing in terms of my knee injury, this support from family and friends kept me going. I had been in good shape and mental strength for so long I had almost forgotten how bleak things were on the other side – but this time in my life rammed that reminder in place with a force that made it hard to forget. Looking back at my mindset before the injury, I saw myself following principles so strong that I had become judgemental against those who would falter or fail to meet the standards I strived to live by. Now however, I found myself humbled as I learnt how no person can stay strong at all times – and that it is ill advised to pass judgement on a situation if you don’t know the whole story.
Then finally a light appeared in the tunnel. I was referred to yet another knee specialist, and so I walked through the door to his clinic with my hopes in tight check so as to avoid deeper disappointment. But to my amazement I walked out of there half an hour later with a diagnosis (that made more sense than anything else I had heard so far), and a careful grin on my face that I could not hold back no matter how much I tried. And with the birth of my son around the corner, it did seem that times were changing for the better. It would take considerable effort to turn things around, but at least now I had a destination and idea of how to get there.