The Journey

A short story by Nick Lagrasta

 

Happy Birthday to you, happy birthday to you! Happy birthday dear Grand-pa-pa,
happy birthday to you!”

Dozens of faces, both young and old, surrounded
the old man as he sat at the head of the table. He did his best to sit upright,
but years of pain and hard work had taken their toll on his once broad shoulders
and strong hands, now stooped and knurled like an old tree.

He smiled a toothless grin, his grey- blue eyes desperately trying to focus on the cake in
front of him. It was a lovely thing, a vanilla cake with white and red frosting.
Vanilla was his favorite, even though he couldn’t taste much of anything any
more. The cake was emblazoned with numbered candles that read “1-0-3,” the
candle light shining off of the eyes of all those around him as they sang,
rejoiced and smiled.

His two eldest children, Claudia and Alexander, who were both in their sixties, stood on either side of him with one hand around his shoulder and the other holding the cake.

Their children, and their children’s children, along with many other friends and other family members, all cheered as he drew a long breath, made a grand show of wishing for something, then blew out the candles in one withering whoosh.

“Happy 103rd birthday, dad!” his daughter exclaimed, hugging him and kissing him on the cheek. His son did the same, and then there was a rush of well wishers from all
around.

“Grand-pa-pa, Grand-pa-pa!” exclaimed Melanie, his son’s youngest
grand-daughter, her curly blond hair cascading back over a beautiful blue dress.
She too had blue eyes like her great grandfather, and the same mischievous smile
that he had had in his youth.

“Tell us a story again, Grand pa-pa! The one about when you used to fly!” In her excitement, she jumped up and down, flapping her wings up and down like a bird.

“Come now, Melanie,” her mother Joyce said, steering her away, “you know that Grand-pa-pa doesn’t like to talk about the before time any more. Besides, he’s getting
tired, and…”

“No!” The old man suddenly exclaimed, in a voice louder than
his weakened body belied. Then after a moment of silence, he continued.

“Since when have I been one that didn’t like to tell stories? Come,
children gather around, what story would you like to hear?”

Suddenly, a dozen voices rang out with excitement, for they all loved hearing Grand-pa-pa’s tales of the before time, when he was young and all the adventures he
had in a world that seemed so strange and dangerous and far away.

“Tell us about aero planes, Grand-pa-pa!” yelled one.

“Tell us about tele-visers!” exclaimed another.

Mon-ee! Show us the thing they called mon-ee! That’s really funny, Grand-pa-pa!”

Melanie piped in again. “Did you fly, Grand-pa-pa? Is it true that you
could fly in the air like a bird?”

“Whoa now, one at a time!” The old man laughed, a loving smile on his withered face. An unruly piece of white hair stood up on the top of his otherwise bald head, giving him a clownish appearance.

“Yes, it’s true. We could fly, in machines we called airplanes, that flew so high..” he paused for a few seconds for dramatic effect, “…that we looked down on the clouds!”

Another great grandchild chimed in, “And you used to all sit a room and watch a glass tube called a tele..tele…”

“A television! Yes, for hours we would sit and watch images on a glass screen, sort of like watching a play, only it was in your own living room twenty four hours a day!”

“That sounds really silly, Grand-pa-pa!” And all the children laughed hysterically, as if it were the funniest thing that they ever heard.

“Imagine,” said Jeremy, 12 years old and with a face full of freckles, “staring at a piece of glass for hours at a time! What was the purpose of that?”

“So it could SUCK YOUR BRAIN AWAY! AHHHH!” Replied the old man, gesturing with his gnarled hands like a crazy bear.

“But who did the planting?” Asked Maria, his daughter’s youngest grandchild “Who harvested the wheat, and the vegetables, and-”

“Who milked the cows?” Interjected Linda, Maria’s older sister, then added “I hate milking cows!”
“That’s just it,” replied the old man, pointing with his finger, “OTHER people did that,
and you paid them money to do it instead of having to do it for yourself!”

“What’s money, Grand-pa-pa?” Several children said at once, a puzzled look across their faces.

The old man reached a withering hand into his sweater pocket, fished around a bit, and pulled out a crinkled, dark green piece of paper. He unfolded it carefully, and then held it out in front so the children could all see.

“This,” he said, “is money!”

There was a stunned silence, then after a few seconds, the children all broke out into a
raucous laughter.

“That’s a piece of paper, Grand-pa-pa!” Shouted Melanie through fits of laughter. “How can that be worth anything?”

“You see, children…” the old man continued, his voice suddenly serious, “in the
before time, this silly piece of paper that we called money was what our entire
lives were built around. Everything – the land around us, the trees, the water
flowing in the river, the very earth itself was given a value, and this value
was money.”

“For example,” he continued, “the forest was not valuable because of the trees that were home to many birds and animals, or the rich soil that could be used to sustain life, nor the rocks that supported it all from underneath. These were just “resources” that we could use for ourselves, and use them we did; we cleared the forests for their wood, and after we destroyed the forest, we turned it into farmland to grow our crops, and when we were done with that, we got rid of the farmland and built houses and roads and buildings so
that other people could move in and use even more or our natural resources from
farther and farther away. Until…”

“There was nothing left?”

“Exactly.” His smile seemed to fade away, and tears began to well up in his eyes. Now the entire room was silent as he stared at the images of the past that seemingly only he could see.

He swallowed, and a lonely tear broke free and ran down the side of his withered cheek as he seemed to regain his train of thought, then continued.

“Yes, we could fly in the sky. And we could talk to people thousands of miles away. We could replace people’s hearts with new ones when they got sick, and we could build cities that stretched farther than you could ever imagine. We even landed on the moon!”

The silence was palpable, and his old eyes seemed to burn through everyone in the
room.

“But at what price? WHAT PRICE? You see, there is a price for everything – nothing comes without some sort of cost. And we paid, and paid dearly in the end for our way of life. We pumped out every last drop of oil that we could out of the ground and burned it mercilessly until we could find no more. We polluted our air. We destroyed our oceans. We razed our once bountiful forests and turned them into concrete and asphalt deserts, and all for the sake of this!” He shouted, shaking the twenty dollar bill in the air for emphasis. He
tossed in on the ground in disgust.

“All that mattered were things. How many things can I buy? How many things can I own? The newest, the best, the most beautiful! And in our stupid quest for these useless things, there was a price: Wars. Disease. Starvation. We lost our oceans. We lost our land. And
ultimately….. we lost ourselves. And that is something that we must never allow
to happen again!”

The silence stretched, and the only thing that could be heard in the room was the tick tock tick tock of the pendulum clock on the wall. Outside the window, a soft winter snow began to fall.

It was young Melanie that finally broke the silence.

“Grand-pa-pa, why are you so sad? Things are better now, aren’t they?”

The old man choked back some more tears. “Yes, little one. Yes they are. Now we realize the true value of what we are is not in what we have, but in what we ultimately become.”
He held out his arms, and the little girl lovingly jumped into his lap and gave
the old man a big hug.

“Life is a journey, not a destination; and that journey begins and ends…..here.” He smiled, putting his frail hand over her heart.

Everyone in the room clapped, and there were tears of joy and laughter and smiles.

“How did you get so wise, Grand-pa-pa?” Melanie asked in her lilting young voice.

“Well, let me show you,” he replied, and gestured to his son, “Alexander, get me the book.”

Alexander nodded, and then left the room. Several moments later he returned with a weathered old scrapbook and placed it on the table in front of his father. The old man grasped it in his trembling hands, and as the children all gathered around he opened the
cover and began to slowly flip the pages.

There were newspaper clippings, pictures and magazines articles. One newspaper clipping read“Economic Collapse; Is This the End of Capitalism?” The other read, “War in the Middle East; Iran Detonates Nuclear Bomb in the Straights of Hormutz.” A magazine article screamed, “Swine Flu Claims 1 Millionth Victim.”

Page after page outlined the decline and subsequent collapse of a once bright and mighty civilization, the most powerful nations the world had ever seen. Once bristling with technology only dreamed of in books of science fiction, it was slowly but inexorably brought to its knees by greed, corruption, and the depletion of the earths resources until it resembled the 19th century Victorian Era more than it did 21st century Buck Rogers that
everyone was expecting.

The transformation had been slow and painful; billions had perished in the wars, famines and outbreaks of disease that inevitably follow the collapse of empires, but freed of all of their technological contrivances and baubles, the people who survived were happier
now. Grand-pa-pa liked to call it, “The New Renaissance,” and always liked to remind everyone that they were living history now and that in the future, people would look back and marvel at the transformation that had occurred.

And then there were the pictures, pages and pages of faded memories and dreams and loved ones that had come and gone. One showed a beaming bride alongside a smiling groom. “Grand-pa-pa, who is that?” Melanie asked.

“That’s me, when I was young. And that’s my sweetie; your Grand-ma-ma.”

“She’s so beautiful!” She replied, astonishment in her voice. “Where is she now?”

“She’s in heaven, waiting for me.” He said haltingly, and then added, “She died a long time ago, just after the War….” His voice trailed off, lost in thought. He turned the page.

The next picture, faded and wrinkled, showed two middle-aged men in neat, white Karate uniforms, both wearing black belts and striking a fighting pose towards the camera. The
man on the left they immediately recognized as their Grand-pa-pa. The man on the
right was a huge, imposing figure with a barrel chest, a shaved head and a goatee. His eyes, dark and piercing, seemed to jump right out of the page.

“Who is that, Grand-pa-pa?” This time it was Jeremy who
asked.

“That…was my Sensei. My Teacher – the one who has gone before.” The old man nodded his head, as if he were bowing to the picture.

“He looks scary!” Exclaimed Melanie, and then added, “What happened to him?”

The old man drew a deep breath and smiled. “Well, he had this wonderful Dojo in Mississauga (that’s what we called the city where we lived). We lost touch just after the War started and things started to collapse. I heard rumors, though; some people said he moved to Tibet and opened a Dojo there. Others said he got killed in a parachuting accident.”

“What’s a parachute?” Jeremy asked.

“It was something people used to use to float to the ground after they jumped out of an airplane.”

“But why would anyone want to do that?”

The old man laughed. “I don’t know, I asked him that myself many times. Why would anyone want to jump out of a perfectly good airplane?”

After several moments of laughter, he continued. “No, he didn’t pass away in a parachuting accident. As a matter of fact, I know that he’s still alive somewhere, even today.”

“How do you know that, Grand-pa-pa?”

The old man’s face softened for a moment, as if seeing something only he could see.

“Because he visits me sometimes. In my dreams. And in my dreams we’re both young again and back at the Dojo. Most of the time we train together, but sometimes we just talk.” He could see the skeptical look in the children’s eyes, and then added matter-of-factly, “It’s a trick he learned from his own sensei, apparently.”

He tapped the picture with a wrinkled finger, and continued. “You asked me how I could be so ‘wise.’ Well, it’s because of a lot of things, but mostly because of my martial arts and
all those years of hard training. You see, it was because of this man that I learned what I learned – that strength comes from within, not from this.” He clenched his fist and held it in front of the children, and his hand somehow no longer looked weak and crooked but deceptively strong and hard.

“He taught me that life is a journey, not a destination; and we shared that journey together, if only for a short while. And he taught me what one person could do if they tried and never gave up, and that change starts from within and spreads out, like a pebble in a pond….” He paused, and then slowly closed his book. “Perhaps I’ll see him again, just like I’ll see your Grand-ma-ma.” Then he whispered, almost inaudibly,”…soon.”

The old man grew tired and his children, seeing him hunching over in fatigue, announced that it was time for Grand-pa-pa to go to bed. After many hugs and kisses and best
wishes, the party was over and the guest of honor departed for his room.

************************************************************************

That night, on January 25th 2069, the old man fell into a deep sleep. And in that
sleep, he began to dream, a dream move vivid than any he had ever had.

And in that dream he was standing at a doorway, which he immediately
recognized as his old Dojo, and it was just as he remembered it; the hardwood
floor, the bokken and the sai and other martial arts weapons stacked neatly in
racks, and the pictures on the wall of those who had gone before, the martial
arts masters who had shaped the art over the years.

There was a class in session and the old man knelt in the doorway, waiting for permission to enter as was customary when one was late for class. His sensei was facing him and sat in
front of the Shomen (the alter) in Sazen, or meditation position. The rest of the class, a dozen of so students of various belt ranks, sat in a perfectly straight line with their backs to him in meditation also.

After a few moments of silence, his Sensei opened his eyes and smiling, said “Come on in, and join us.”

The old man stood, trembling and unsure, then bowed and stepped into the Dojo. He then noticed that his body was no longer aged and bowed and decrepit, but young and vital and strong. His Gi shone white, and his black belt was tied firmly around his waist.

He recognized all of the students as they turned to look at him, and had to
restrain himself from crying out in joy at seeing all of his old friends and
companions smiling at him. He stood there, frozen for several seconds and unsure
of what to do next, when Sensei finally broke the silence.

“It has been a long time.” The sensei’s voice, like the rest of him, was so forceful and
dominating, yet belied a tenderness and understanding. Kime was the
first word that went through the old man’s head.

“Yes Sensei, it has.” And the old man bowed deeply.

“And how are you feeling today?”

“Wonderful, Sensei.”

“We have all walked up the mountain and shared a journey together once before,” continued the huge man with the black belt, addressing all of his students. Then he turned to the old man. “It is time to begin another. Are you ready…… Grand-pa-pa?”

The old man took a deep breath, and he could smell the familiar smells of that place, and he could see every small detail as he glanced around the room; the paint on the wall, the
sweet scent of the burning incense, but it was the pictures on the front of the dojo that caught his attention.

The pictures of all the grand masters of the art were placed high on the wall, the ones who had gone before, and were held in the highest esteem by the practitioners of the art that followed. Their pictures were placed on the front wall of the dojo only after they had passed away, in reverence of their contribution to the art.

The old man then noticed that a picture of his own Sensei was on the far end of that same wall, and it was at that moment that he finally understood.

“ So are you ready, Grand-pa-pa?” His Sensei asked again, smiling knowingly.

Choking back tears, he finally replied, “I’ve been ready for a long, long time,
Sensei….”

His Sensei smiled and placed one hand on his shoulder, then said, “Then let’s begins this journey together. But first,” he added, a mischievous grin on his face, “let me see you do your Seiunchin…..”

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About Nick Lagrasta

Chief instructor, Classical Martial Arts Centre, Umaka Dojo, Shelburne Ontario
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