Category Archives: Family

Everyone Deserves It

I wasted time at the train station after disembarking, slowly drinking coffee and eating a donut, while waiting for the demand for Ubers to subside.  When the price of the ride returned to the reasonable rate of a minute per mile, I got in one and let it take me to the hospital that once felt like it had a room with my name on it.  As a child, I had repeated bouts of severe bronchitis and thus spent a lot of time in a building now called the old wing.  But this 21st century plaza of glass and steel was not the healing place I remembered.  Very little in the town where I spent the first 14 years of my life looked familiar, for that matter.  That fact was a bittersweet distraction.

Once at the hospital, I still delayed.  Far too much time in the gift shop to come away with a mere card – and one that said something trite that felt insincere on my part: “May an angel always be beside you.”  Not a single bone in my body believed this man had lived his life in a way that should keep him in the company of angels – certainly not the part of it that pertained to me.  He’d inflicted physical and psychological abuse on my mother and me.  He told me numerous times that he hadn’t wanted to be a father and that my existence had made his more difficult.  My mother and I were made to pay.  And so I meandered around the spanking brand new wing of the hometown hospital, the one that used to have a room with my name on it, praying for the courage to face this man who forced me to play postman at his building just to get him to come into the lobby so I could see him.  Even then, I couldn’t get him to let his grandchildren in or to come out to the car to meet them.

“…Because everyone deserves it – no matter what,” I wrote inside the blank card with the trite spiritual wish on the outside.  That I believed.  Every child of God deserves the accompaniment of an angel, no matter how damaged or damaging he may be.  “I love you!”  I added.  Through every horrible memory, that too had always been true, sometimes in spite of myself.

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When I found the room with the beautiful view of Long Island Sound, the one with his name on it, he wasn’t in it.  He was back in the old wing of the hospital undergoing stress tests on his heart.  I would have missed him even if I’d gone straight to his room without buying the card, but not if I’d bypassed the coffee and donut.  It was now going to be at least two hours before I could see him, and I had only designated six for him.  The need to be the mother and the teacher that I love being called me harder than the obligation to be the daughter it hurt to be.  That, and the fact that my business as a baker still doesn’t run without me after two years, required I return home, as long as he was stable and could make his own medical decisions.

“What time did you leave?  I could hear you in my bedroom.  Did you kiss me goodbye?  What time are you coming home?”  Such were the text message questions from my teenaged daughter, who’s on the spectrum.  The last question was, in part, to know how long she’d have to play on the computer before I was home to turn her attentions back to Chemistry and Algebra II.  But I also know that my girl must feel the love from me each day for any day to be complete. She hated my business trips when I used to have them, which always made me hate them a bit, too.

God has an interesting sense of humor.  How else can one explain such an affinity for children in the child of a man who considers children a nuisance?

“Don’t cry when you say goodbye to him, Mom; it’ll probably freak him out,” my daughter said about a student whose family was moving to the other side of the country. She was right, I knew.  So I shed my tears at home, out of sight, before giving my parting blue sash a medallion I won years ago as a goodbye present.

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Somewhere in the haze of cold, selfish, liquor-wading isolationism, I know that my father feels a measure of fondness for me that’s at least commensurate with my affection for my students.  I’ve occasionally been able to hear it in his voice, after accomplishing something he could brag about to the neighbors he didn’t want to see or the golf buddies he’s now outlived.  But I’ve spent years wishing he’d feel a little more… and now, I’m told he does.  A stroke will do that.

“He gets emotional when I mention you,” his attending physician told me.  It’s guilt.  What else could it be?  I thought, as I slowly walked from his apartment to his bank, in no hurry to return to the man who had me out running errands without so much as a “good to see you” or “thanks for coming.”

“One of these days we’re going to have to have it out,” he’d said eons ago, back when his intentional verbal cruelty could still make me livid.  But I saw no need for that. It wouldn’t have taken the fear out of a childhood long gone or made him a man who wanted a family.  It would just have been more wasted time.

I thought again about the card from the gift shop as I climbed into the Uber back to the hospital.  “May an angel always be beside you.”  Indeed… for you never wanted anyone else to be.

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…Right in the Jungle

“I gotta hurry back upstairs to the television!” I told my son as the screen door closed behind him.  “It’s the final fight scene in Kill Bill.”

“Omigod!  It’s so cool you have it on, too!” Aaron yelled, jogging behind me.  “That’s why I’m late.  I was watching it at Chris’s house!”

“Did you lock the front door?” I asked rounding the corner to the stairway.

“Shit!  No!” he answered, frozen in his tracks for a moment, weighing whether the lock could wait for the end of the movie.

I could launch into a diatribe about the themes of Kill Bill Vol. II and how much this martial arts mom relates to them.  I could present a laundry list of the traits my son and I have in common and how similar our tastes are in art and music.  In fact, I could fill pages with both subjects.

But as my first born and I sang the soundtrack tune “Goodnight Moon,” watching Beatrix Kiddo drive off into the sunset, my mind centered on a collection of facts that had strongly shaped the moment and that are more important than commonalities with my child or my love of a movie:

  • I had to become a mother to care about my character.
  • I had to quit living like a frat boy to learn what character really is.
  • When my son started living like a frat boy in my house, the character that motherhood made me care about compelled me to show him the door.
  • Showing him the door now brings him back through it with a level of respect and love that I’ve wanted us to have from the day he was born.

The rest of the afternoon’s visit consisted of chowing down on hard shell crabs that Aaron brought with him, chatting about his job, friends and flirtations, and waxing philosophical about the best first career choice for a talented young man who’s bound to have more than one.  It was an afternoon that made the week, if not the season.

“The lioness has rejoined her cub and all is right in the jungle.”  That’s the final statement in Kill Bill… and it’s the truth.


Teeth and Tattoos

I’ve spent four months away from writing, and with each day that I’ve been away, it’s been harder to make the time in my perpetually-sleep-deprived days to return.  But with two young Kung Fu Sihengs weighing heavily on my heart these last weeks, one of whom I just finished speaking with on the phone, the re-entry point is clear.

My son is boarding a plane to Texas tomorrow morning to visit his grandparents for a week.  When he returns, he’ll have one day to dot his “i”s and cross his “t”s before heading down the highway to Georgetown University, which is also my alma mater.  I was scared shitless, as they say, when I found out this child was on the way.  I don’t think the fear was evident to anyone but my therapist – a man who knew enough about me to gently suggest that motherhood might not be the best choice at that point in my life.  My marriage was the epitome of dysfunction, which, given the emotional and physical messes we both were, was all it could be.  But to my therapist’s amazement (and my own!), I consciously chose and gave my all to getting my act together for the sake of the boy who’ll be boarding a plane to Texas tomorrow morning.

He’s getting on that plane missing half of one of his front teeth.  That fact infuriates me for two reasons: first, because he injured himself doing something thoroughly irresponsible and thoughtless, which wasn’t particularly legal either.  ‘Nuff said on that.  Second, the fact that he’ll be taking off for college with this new look, despite having the means and opportunity to cap the tooth, tells me it’s a look (persona?) that he prefers, and it will likely be with him a long time.

So, the mom who stopped being self-destructive in order to enable her child to become exactly what he became – the sought-after valedictorian, scholarship student  – will, for the foreseeable future, be reminded every time she sees her boy that it’s now his turn to be self-destructive.  And he’s taking it.  Repeatedly.  If only someone had chipped his tooth in a sparring match!  I’d still want him to cap the damn thing, of course, but it wouldn’t actually hurt to see it missing.

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The visuals that half tooth gives me, both of my past and of my son’s possible future, are probably nothing compared to the imaginings in the minds of the parents of a young man with a brand new tattoo.  The adolescent who taught me how to make a long staff give me gold medals is entering his last year of college – and counting down the days to his commission as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army.

Siheng Bad-Ass, as I affectionately refer to him, recently returned from an ROTC training mission in Fort Knox that cut him off from the rest of the world for a month.  He was excited and proud as he talked about repelling down walls, while taking practice shots with a machine gun, and I knew before I asked what assignment he’d be requesting ten months from now.

“Oh my God, your poor parents!” I said aloud before I could catch the words.  I was imagining him ducking bullets in Iraq or Syria.   “You’re going in as an officer with a great record.  You can pick anything you want.  You don’t have to choose the infantry,” I said as if I were his mother, telling him what he knew better than I did.

“It’s my calling,” he answered with a big smile.

A week later, he walked into Wushu class with a tattoo on his forearm that reads: “For those I love, I sacrifice.”  I’m not sure I’d be able to read that on my infantry-bound son’s arm without crying each time I saw it.

I worry almost as much about the future of the boy-Siheng who was my teacher as I do about the future of the boy that’s mine.  I haven’t seen the future soldier’s father in months, because my schedule at the store has kept me out of his Saturday class.  But I wish I could give him a hug of commiseration.

We get them ready to walk into the world on their own two feet, then, we have absolutely no control over the size, sound and rhythm of their steps when that walk begins.  At the end of a job well done, what remains is watching and waiting.  Please, God, please…give us a good and happy show.


Long Lines and Loss

I come from a long line of women who won’t take no for an answer – even from God.  When people told my grandmother she didn’t have the constitution to eat whatever she wanted and continue breathing, she ignored them for thirty years, until thirty feet of her intestines had to be removed.  When my father told my mother he would never marry her, she simply changed her last name to his and waited years – for nothing.  When the doctors told my aunt that an epileptic with sickle cell could not carry a child to term, she miscarried five times before menopause permanently decided the issue.

So begins a compilation of autobiographical short stories I wrote a while back.  That opening paragraph has been popping into my head for almost two weeks now, when the last of the three women mentioned in it died less than seventeen days after her ninety-sixth birthday.  That long female line of mine is down to me and my daughter.  I knew that was coming, of course, but I still wasn’t ready.

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I thought my grandmother would make it to triple digits.  Her older sister made it to 101.  But perhaps becoming the last living member of her birth family made her more ready to join her husband and half of her kids.  The longevity of the generation once removed from my own was a source of hope when the early deaths of my mother and three of her siblings made me anxious about my own mortality.  That sporadic anxiety is back.

It is now Good Friday, about a week after I first started this post.  I would love to claim that phenomenal success of the shop has occupied too much of my time to finish writing.  But mama drama is the better explanation.

My son has regressed to his 14-year-old self.  That was the year he acquired new friends and the first real girlfriend and became so out of control that I was ready to ship him to his grandparents in Texas.  Now, a lack of consideration and respect, on multiple levels about multiple big-ticket items, need not lead to a plane ticket purchase.  After all, he is legally – and financially – able to sign a lease.  While my love for him is unconditional, his ability to live in my house is not.  But that fact doesn’t keep the mama bear in me from wanting to keep him safe – especially from himself.

Loss is a natural part of life, occurring in unexpected ways, like sudden illness and teenager confusion, and expected ones, like old age or the end of childhood.  I state the obvious simply so that I can better accept a fact that sucks so profoundly.

Easter weekend was the most important three days of any year to my very religious late grandmother, the woman whose apartment was my second home when my mother was at her second job, the woman who taught me the most about baking and let her daughter provide the finishing touches.  As I receive a host of orders for end-of-Lent goodies, the absence of my baking teacher, who dealt with more loss (four children alone was enough!) with as much grace as possible, leaves me with pain both piercing and acute.

Nellie Mae made chocolate pie once a year for her youngest daughter, my aunt who couldn’t have children.   She taught me to make the ninety-something year old recipe she’d acquired as a child herself on a summer visit my family made to her house, not long after the death of my aunt.  That recipe is my most popular pie and a component of my most popular cupcake.  As long as my shop is here, my grandmother will be with me every day, even more than my mother, whether I like it or not – as will her example of how to handle child-related wounds with grace.

 


Gratitude and Grief

“I guess I better stop bragging,” he said. “You were a big shot, and now you just work retail.”

“I’m still a big shot,” I responded between gritted teeth to the man who’s supposed to love me more than any other.  But in 46 years, he’s never gotten the memo.

Ironically, the apparent loss of bragging rights, from the realization that his talented multitasker of a daughter couldn’t quite pull off a full-time job in television production while running a business that operates seven days a week until 11 p.m., happened in the middle of the most euphoric period of the shop thus far.  From mid-January through the Valentine’s Day/Presidents Day weekend, business was booming more than a two-month-old endeavor probably has the right to enjoy.  Then came the blizzard and restaurant week.

Those who aren’t hunkered down in their layers of sweatpants and sweaters saving up to properly celebrate St. Patrick’s Day for the entire month of March (at least that’s how it goes in Baltimore) are braving the cold and ice right now to go out to dinners that they can only afford one week out of the year. Either way, the end of February has brought with it my winter doldrums.

I’ve now spent a week wondering if the previous month was a figment of my imagination.  It doesn’t help that Lent has started.  I don’t even want to think about the number of folks in Charm City that have given up sugar for the next six weeks!  Calmly navigating the rollercoaster of retail may be a greater mental challenge than surviving black sash training.

Speaking of kung fu, I miss my kids – those who aren’t mine and the two who are, as well.  This unwanted hiatus from the adrenaline rush of being busy comes while I’m in between teaching sessions at the gym.  I awarded four sashes at the end of last session – one white, one yellow and two green. My first green sashes mark a transition for me as well: I’ll be teaching my first intermediate-level class, starting this Sunday.  That will include intro instruction in staff work, the very thing that has attracted students to me in the first place and the part of kung fu I love the most.  I can’t wait!

I can however wait for my daughter, who is days away from the fourth of her six black sash tests, to finish growing up.  Leaving a training session at the gym last week, I had the horrifying experience of watching my little girl get checked out for the first time.  The guy who couldn’t take his eyes off of her after saying hello twice (she didn’t know he was talking to her the first time) was wearing a college lacrosse shirt.

Even if you’re only a freshman, you’ve got five years on this girl, which makes you a virtual pedophile! So move it along!!

That’s what I wanted to scream at the perfectly normal looking, red-blooded, athletic man waiting, like us, for an elevator to the parking lot.  But I managed to simply step between him and Ava, silently.  And so it’s in the winter doldrums of 2015 that I’ve first come to miss that little girl of mine who couldn’t possibly have been mistaken for a woman.

As for the child who’s already wearing black around his waist, I can’t remember the last time we were in a kung fu class together, and that used to be our quality time.  We don’t know when they’re getting on our last nerve complaining about eating the broccoli or brushing their teeth that we’ll wind up wishing those days were on a loop.  My son dropped his gym membership (which was the second place we spent the most time together) and has a new-found social life that, frankly, fills me with dread.  I’m being well-prepared for his departure from my daily life at summer’s end, if not sooner, and I’m caught between gratitude and grief.

For seven years, I knew with certainty the bulk of what the day would bring.  I had obligations to fulfill as a producer, a mother, a kung fu student and a spouse, and most of those obligations had predetermined, expected outcomes.  Now, I wake up with a head full of questions on the day.  How much will I make? Can I get her to train harder? What will he realize? How much can she help? Almost everything feels out of my hands – at least until I create a new recipe, hit the gym with my staff or both.

I can control the quality of my food and my kung fu, and I don’t yet have to miss either.  Those facts will always make me feel big – hold the shot – even in winter doldrums.


No Longer Fine

I could hear it in her voice.  It was more than fatigue.  So I asked again if anything happened during her school day that was out of the ordinary.

“I messed up my math and got upset with Mr. White.”  I asked what she meant by “got upset.”  There was a time in her life when an emotional outburst at school was an almost daily occurrence that prompted phone call and email notification.  There was a time when everyone in the neighborhood knew when she was upset because they could hear it through the stone-covered walls of our house or the bricks of the school.

“Well, I had to take a moment to go to the bathroom and calm down,” she answered, sounding chagrined.  It was a strange sound that brought me up short.  I paused for a moment and asked if she and Mr. White were okay with each other.  It was my way of trying to find out if she’d been disrespectful in her outburst.

As a child on the spectrum, she’s been through all sorts of techniques and suggestions, from parents and professionals alike, to control her emotions better, and she’s made continued progress over the years.  Though I’ve been notified multiple times this school year about mandatory study hall assignments because her homework wasn’t as done as she said it was, the last in-school outburst I heard about was a year ago.  Did I now need to expect an email from Mr. White about my daughter being rude?  I wondered.

“Yeah.  We were fine after I calmed down,” she answered.  There it was again – the sound of something totally new in my thirteen-year-old, emotionally and socially-challenged girl.  It sounded like embarrassment, perhaps even shame.  I had a sudden confusing twinge of completely contradictory emotions.  I hurt for her and was elated at the same time.

Through a lifetime of being told and taught to better control her reactions to situations and information she dislikes, Ava’s always acted as if the people upon whom she inflicted her outbursts were the ones with the problem.  As she saw it, we just needed to let her flip out and happily live with the completely inappropriate behavior.  But as she told me about this incident during her daily afterschool phone call, it was clear  that she was the one who was bothered by her own lack of control.  She’d gotten used to reacting well, and she was disappointed in herself for going backwards.

I was so proud of her I had to keep from crying, as I sat in the cubicle I’ll be leaving in less than a month.  I told her not to feel bad, that it sounded like she got it together pretty quickly and was still on good terms with Mr. White, so there was nothing to worry about it.  I told her I love her and gave her what my family calls a psychic hug.

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Ava started testing for her black belt a couple of weeks ago.  She’ll be getting her braces off a couple of weeks from now.  The application process for public high school selection (a unique ritual in Baltimore, as far as I know) begins next month.  In short, my girl’s going through a lot of changes this season, but none more significant than being disappointed in herself for behavior she once thought was fine.


Force of Nature

I am not a big fan of time today.

This girl..

..is now this teen.

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And she is, quite simply, a force of nature.  Her smile is infectious, and her bad mood can disappear on a dime.  She’s a talker with no filter and a math whiz who hates math.

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She throws a roundhouse that feels like a log and talks smack about sports better than a middle aged man. She’s made me proud and pissed off in the same moment on several occasions in her short life, and she’s sure to do so again.

Today, my youngest became a teenager….  I couldn’t be a more thankful and hopeful mother.  I couldn’t be less of a fan of time.


It Talks, We Construe

Thursday afternoon, I’m anxious.  Then, he’s home.   He gets off the plane taller, more philosophical, more fluent in Spanish…

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and psyched to go to kung fu.

Friday afternoon, I’m frazzled.  I’m going to multiple stores for a slew of necessary shopping and a medical emergency.  Then, it’s time to go to work.  It’s the moment I’ve been waiting on since mid-April: the return to teaching.

Friday night, I’m dejected.  There’s only one sign-up for the Friday class and the 7-year-old is a no show.  I tell Aaron about the class that wasn’t when he gets home from work and ask absentmindedly while climbing the stairs, “You think the universe is trying to tell me something?”

“I think the universe is just speaking,” answers the president of the philosophy club.  “It just talks and we construe things however we want.”

“Well said.  I’m going to have to steal that.”

Long day, disappointing night, and one thought remains: I’m so glad he’s home.


Remembrance

            I can’t believe it was only a month ago that she was standing tall, dressed in a navy blue pants ensemble with a cream-colored silk blouse, looking as elegant as always as she sent me off to the airport to return home.  “We’ll see each other again,” she told me, with her gold Nephritides necklace hanging from her neck, as it had most days of her life for more than a decade.

            Her matching navy blue sandals had a two-inch heel that restored her height to the stature I remembered her having when I was a child.  I wondered: had she begun shrinking through the normal aging process, or was it the illness that had shortened her?  Perhaps she was no shorter at all; she simply seemed that way to a daughter moving up the ladder of mortality.

            Her make-up was flawless, I remember, and conservative: a light application of base to even out the pecan complexion that was just slightly darker under her eyes, and a wine shaded lipstick that left its imprint on my cheek.  Her signature headwear completed the picture imprinted on my mind. 

            That day she chose a beret – cream-colored to match her blouse.  It was her favorite kind of hat, the one she wore most often if she could get away with it.  It was fitting that a beret was the last hat I saw her in. 

            There is no hat now.  There’s barely hair since Tony came in and cut off the soft, shiny, wavy curls of her mixed African- and Native-American heritage.   I miss the curls as I stare at her, remembering her look of dismay two weeks earlier when I said her hair looked good grown out.  It had been long and enviable throughout my life until the Florida heat inspired her to crop it close to her scalp. 

            I run my hand across the fresh-cut, hoping she can feel my touch.  My other hand is wrapped around her own, squeezing, willing her to open her eyes.


Rituals and the Rolling Stones

“Hola, Mommy!  Como – How are you?”

It was like manna from heaven, the sound of my boy’s voice, replete with a Spanish accent and brimming with a level of excitement I hadn’t heard in him in a long time.  There was no need for me to ask if he was enjoying himself at his Spanish immersion program.  It was clear.  If he was bothered by four days of mandatory silence with the outside world, it certainly didn’t show.

I put him on speaker phone and all of the females of the family peppered him with information and questions.  He answered rapidly, with only thirty minutes total to talk to us, his father and the girl he started dating before leaving for a month, but I could see the smile on his face through the phone, nevertheless.

He has the same smile today as the one he was born with.  It’s still there, though it’s been studded with teeth now for quite some time.  Occasionally,  a certain tilt of his head coupled with the mischievous rise of a corner of his mouth brings his infant self flying back into view.

I listened to him tell us with giddy giggles  about his ritual of racing across campus at dawn to get thirty minutes of kung fu training in before his regimented day begins, and I thought, for perhaps the tenth time this month, where have all the years gone?  Wasn’t it just a few years ago we had our own morning ritual of dancing outside his crib to the Rolling Stones’ “Satisfaction?”

Nope.  Not even close.  It was almost a lifetime ago.  His lifetime.

I’m going to need a bit more of mine to get over that.  Sigh…

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Fun and Family

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“It was nice working with you today. Or nice playing with you, really,” Siheng Perry said with a big smile. Today was the first time in a long time that he was in class with us, and he didn’t disappoint. Siheng Perry can be counted on for both wry humor and corny jokes, and with Sifu out of town judging a tournament, he practically gave us a nightclub act.

Coupled with the warm, easy, enthusiastic instruction of Siheng Steve, my compatriot in kung fu pain and passion (see “Facing the Door,” 4/5/14) it was a truly fun Saturday in the guan. That fun was sorely needed after approaching the school door this morning with a chip on my shoulder I hadn’t been able to shake.

My son attended Friday night class, a class that Sifu has yet to welcome me back into, though we’ve allegedly turned over a new leaf. When my boy began talking about happenings in the class, I felt nostalgic for the camaraderie of the select group I used to be part of, becoming angry about my punishment for the first time in a while. That anger then morphed into renewed disappointment in my son (see “A Small Moment, 3/31/14), who seems completely unbothered by my continued exclusion, though it should have been over the moment Sifu said, “I want us to start over from right now; forget everything I said before today.”

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I’m used to a young man known to show righteous indignation over unfair treatment. Perhaps he thinks empathizing with his mother would require boycotting Friday class. I’d settle for a simple, “It really sucks that you can’t come too, Mom,” on his way out the door. But that doesn’t appear to be forthcoming anytime soon – and I still have to feed him. 🙂

Yeah, I definitely needed a fun day in the guan. Gotta love it when the universe gives you what you need.


Thursdays with Pooh

I entered the school with a big smile on my face, happy to see him after a two-week absence from his class. But I could barely get his attention long enough for him to bow. He was distracted and looked befuddle in a way that made him seem like an oversized, living teddy bear – a 21st century Pooh, who’s deadly even when confused.

Siheng C was working on a mystery when we came in, trying to determine who’d been in the school before he came to open up and why. As I listened to the most talkative instructor in the guan rattle off break-in theories to the parent with three children waiting to warm up for the sparring class, I couldn’t help but chuckle at how nice it was to be entertained by him again. My children have good taste in role models, I had to admit, though it took some time for him to grow on me.

Siheng C is a very big guy, who’s currently getting smaller. He has loud, adorable children who are incredibly fun to play with, though sometimes hard to teach. When I first saw him in the school almost three years ago, he looked much too out of shape to be a marital artist. I assumed he attended the school long ago and returned to get back into old form. He talked a lot, struck me as much too familiar with total strangers, and made the unthinkable affront of publicly disregarding Sifu’s directives. In short, he rubbed me the wrong way. His children made him someone I would get to know regardless, his and my own.

My son says Siheng C is like another father to him; my daughter is more comfortable with him than any other instructor in the school – which has sometimes been detrimental to her learning sparring, but that’s another story. The long and short of it is: he’s been brightening Thursdays for them a while now, and that eventually became true for me, too.