In September of 2009 I was cleaning up after a relationship gone bad. My ex-boyfriend had moved out only after I threatened to call the police and I did not allow him back to get his stuff without police supervision. He had friends pick up all of his belongings, which I had carefully packed in boxes to avoid giving him any valid recourse.
One of our mutual friends,with whom I’d spent many hours ice skating and rock climbing, had practiced aikido for years. He knew I had a tendency towards roughhousing for fun. He recognized that a martial art might be a good fit for me, but thought aikido wasn’t quite right. He’d been asking me periodically for at least a year, I think, if I had tried any martial arts.
I had no interest in competing, so arts like Brazilian jiu jitsu and judo were out. I found a Japanese jujutsu club on the U of I campus that sounded interesting. With my newfound freedom I finally walked in the door of gym 3 at the campus rec facility, mostly so I could tell my friend I did it.
I liked it. People got thrown base over apex, bodies went boom on the mats, and it didn’t require sheer strength or size to be a complete terror (albeit friendly and safe) on the mat. Perfect for me!
I wasn’t sure about the instructor, i.e. sensei. He barked orders like a drill sergeant. He demanded a level of physical work that I hadn’t attempted before. I did long-distance cycling casually. Before I got into cycling I was pretty sedentary. He had us do bear crawls (keep you hips down!), push ups, squats with a partner, and all sorts of other exercises.
That was just the preparation for every class. After 30 minutes of warm up and conditioning, we finally got to jujutsu for the next 90 minutes.
“I don’t know if I like this sensei guy,” I thought. “We’ll see. Jujutsu seems neat.”
In my second or third class someone was trying to do a sweep and botched it. Pop! Knees aren’t supposed to make that sound. It was only a low-grade MCL strain, but it was unnerving to have my first sports-related injury so quickly. I avoided jujutsu until mid-October.
I’m not sure why I went back, but I’m glad I did. My dad was diagnosed with brain cancer in January 2010, only a couple of months after my return to jujutsu. Boy, did I need distraction and stress relief!
I wanted to make sure the jujutsu sensei knew that I wasn’t bailing on the club again. I needed to go home and help my family for a bit. Once I talked to him as an individual, I saw he was a friendly person who drives his students to do their best.
Dissertation research and jujutsu co-existed with frequent trips between my parents’ house and school. On chemo days with my dad, I’d pack his lunch (a braunschweiger, mayo, and pickle sandwich on white bread), help him to his car, drive to the cancer center, and push him to his assigned room for the day in a wheel chair. Once we were settled he often fell asleep. While he slept, I ran climate models on supercomputers and wrote code to process, analyze, and visualize data.
My mom would have preferred to stay with my dad the whole time, but she carried the health insurance for both of them. My dad was in between jobs at the time he was diagnosed due to a round of layoffs at his job of 20 or so years and another round of layoffs at the job he got after that. My mom only had 12 weeks of FMLA to spread across the entire year and less paid leave than that. I filled the gaps so she could focus on keeping her job.
When I went back to Illinois for school, everything looked as it always had and for everyone else it was business as usual. For me, my dad was always in the back of my mind. I kept up with my mom on his condition and I was ready to leave on a moment’s notice if something happened or they needed my help. Jujutsu was the only time I could escape that reality. Being upside down in mid air really kept me in the moment.
I started to form a habit of talking with the sensei and his first in command after class. They were both down to earth and had some understanding of the hardship my family faced. The sensei had experienced serious illness and death of people close to him. The first in command was a nurse and at least understood from a medical perspective.
Those were some of my happiest times that spring and summer. We’d sit in the campus gym’s lobby when it was cold or rainy or stand in the parking lot when the weather was nice. I’d update them on my dad’s condition, but mostly we just chatted about anything and everything. I found them both thoughtful and interesting, certainly moreso than most of my classmates and others I had met on campus.