“Saito Sensei did not disappoint and I knew right away
that I needed to experience life at the dojo in Iwama!”
As I sat quietly in seiza next to Saito Sensei’s bed, with Rie-san translating his words, a mixture of emotions ran through me. How could it be that Saito Sensei, a mountain of a man who seemed so indestructible, be so ill and stuck in bed? He will somehow beat this cancer and come back on the mat to teach, I thought.
As Sensei spoke, I could see Rie-san out of the corner of my eye fighting back tears. We had heavy hearts, but Sensei did not complain – he was more concerned about what was practiced during morning keiko (class), and he seemed pleased to hear the report. He looked at me and said, “Daniel san, suburi, suburi, suburi.” Even from his bed, Sensei was still giving directions on the chores to be done around the dojo. I took this to heart, and today I still stress the same point to my students.
I remember thinking how privileged I was to be there, one-on-one with Saito Sensei, in this very personal and private moment. Even though cancer had ravaged his body and caused paralysis from the waist down, Sensei still radiated that unique energy and looked amazingly strong.
He also insisted that I share some juicy red strawberries with him. Tatoian Sensei had brought boxes of strawberries all the way from California; Sensei really enjoyed those strawberries! I was tasked with helping Rie-san, who was head uchi-deshi at the time, to refill the kerosene heaters at Sensei’s house. One day as we were refilling the heaters, I heard Sensei querying who was there – Rie responded, “I am here with Daniel san”, and that’s when Sensei said “bring him inside!”
How did I come to be here, worlds away from my tiny island home of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean? Essentially, I arrived in Iwama through a zigzag of adventures and misadventures; I guess you could say I took the fast track to adulthood by becoming a father at the age of 18. Although parenthood was the result of an impulsive and irresponsible moment in time, it set me on a challenging course to be a responsible father and provide for my family. My ex-wife’s family had migrated to Melbourne, Australia, and they convinced us to join them in the ‘promised land’ to provide a brighter future for our family. Armed with a high school diploma and no formal college education, we arrived in Melbourne in the heart of winter with fifty bucks in my pocket. Three days later, I was on the 5am train to my first ‘grown-up’ job working 12-hour shifts in a Toyota factory. The factory was dark and cold, and during my 15-minute breaks, I would nestle up to the nearest fluorescent wall light to absorb some heat. Occasionally, I would close my eyes and think of my teenage friends and brothers and sisters back in Mauritius, soaking up the sun.