I was supposed to be born on this day, the 23rd of April, in 1978. At least that was the hope because April 23rd was my paternal grandfather’s birthday. However, as has been true for my entire life, I was stubborn and in no great hurry to do what was expected of me. After waiting long enough for my arrival, the doctors ordered a cesarean birth and I was forcibly removed from my mother’s womb against my will (yes, I am being intentionally dramatic) two days later, on April 25th. Twenty years later, I began my martial art journey in Korean hapkido, under the tutelage of Joe Sheya. Joe, I came to find out, had the same birthday as my grandfather, but Joe was born 23 years later. Life is funny.
I do not have a green thumb. I am not good at taking care of plants or tending a garden. Perhaps it is more that I choose to spend my time on other things, but either way, plants that need attention do not do well in my home or my yard. For this reason, when my wife and I expressed interest in having a garden at our first home in Annapolis, Maryland, my mother suggested that we plant a perennial garden. She would bring us some flowers as a wedding/housewarming gift. We began discussing my grandfather’s bleeding-heart flowers, flowers I had fond memories of from my childhood. My mother explained to me that she had cuttings of his plant at her home and that she could bring some to me to plant in my yard. I was thrilled.
Trepidatious about my ability to care for my grandfather’s plants, and with a strong desire to ensure that they survived and thrived in my care, I recalled that my hapkido teacher’s wife was in the process of creating a beautiful garden around their home and the dojang (Korean martial art training hall) in their backyard where we practiced hapkido. Joe’s wife Carol had the green thumb I did not and it seemed appropriate that this part of my childhood and my personal lineage find a home at this place and with these people who meant so much to me.
Joe had become more than a teacher to me over the years. He was like an adoptive father, a brother, and a friend. He used to call me “little brother” because so many of my character quirks and flaws were also his. We were family, and, through Joe, his wife Carol became family as well. I knew that my grandfather’s flowers would have a good home with them and it would please me greatly to glance over at them as I walked the path through their yard to the dojang to train and then again on my way out to go home to my wife. Carol planted the bleeding hearts and they thrived under her care.
In 2014, right after my wife and I found out that she was pregnant with our first child, we got the terrible news that my teacher, Joe, passed away from a sudden and massive heart attack at only 65 years old. I was devastated and his passing, like his life, changed the entire trajectory of my personal journey. The first time I had really experienced deep, personal loss from death was when my grandmother (my father’s mother) had passed away in 2007. She was 83 and it was a very difficult time, especially for my grandfather who later passed away in 2012, I suspect as much from heartache as from old age. As hard as my grandparent’s deaths were on me, they did not prepare me for what I experienced when Joe died.
With my grandparents, we had some time with them when we knew that they were not well and that their time with us was limited. I visited them as much as I could when they were ill, and I was able to grieve their impending absence, as best I could, over time. When they passed, it was expected, and there was some sense of relief to go along with the sorrow, anger, and regret. With Joe, it was a complete shock. I went to sleep one night next to my wife and, when I woke up to use the bathroom in the middle of the night, I saw that my friend Reyadh had called and left me a voicemail while I was sleeping. At first, I dismissed it as something that could wait until the morning, but then I realized that he would not have called that late if it was not important. I listened to Reyadh’s message and heard the news. Joe had died suddenly that night, while working as a bouncer on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, a job he did for fun and some extra cash because Joe could not ever sit still. He had had a heart attack and the EMT’s were unable to save him.
Many people believe in life after death, eternal life, reincarnation, etc. I don’t dispute those beliefs, but I will add an observation of my own. My grandfather grew beautiful bleeding-heart flowers in his backyard, flowers that affected me and made an impression on me as a child, something that has lived with me well after his passing. These flowers remind me of my grandparents and bring back all sorts of fond childhood memories for me when I see them or imagine them. My grandparents have passed on and the home where my grandfather grew his flowers is no longer in our family, but my grandfather’s flowers still bloom every Spring at multiple homes in multiple states. They may not give others the same memories that they have given me, but they are there to bring a smile to the lives of those who see them, to create new memories for people my grandfather never met, perhaps for many generations to come.
Through something as simple as a flower, my grandfather lives on well past his physical life and his presence and influence have been reborn in every place his bleeding-heart flowers have been replanted. I do not claim to know about eternity or reincarnation, but I can say for certain that the things we do while we are alive, even something as seemingly insignificant as planting a flower in our backyard, these little acts mean something and they are our legacy that lives on beyond our brief lives. We never know how what we do will affect the lives of others, even perfect strangers several generations later, so we must think carefully about what kind of seeds we sew and what kind of garden we create in our backyard.
Written by Robert Van Valkenburgh, Co-Founder of Kogen Dojo & Taikyoku Mind and Body