Dignity and Courage in the Face of a Devastating Diagnosis
One of my first spiritual mentors, a man named Sidney Austin, was my T’ai Chi instructor in New Jersey for several years. He was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. I never knew him before his diagnosis. Other students used to tell me that if I thought he was extraordinary when I knew him, I would not believe the power of this man before he became ill. His dharma was to show others what bravery and determination looked like in the face of a serious devastating illness.
One of the stories I love best about him is this one. Following his diagnosis, a neurosurgeon did an exploratory surgery to see if the brain tumor could be removed. Unfortunately, it was inoperable. Shortly after he returned to his room from the surgical recovery room, Austin was up on his feet doing T’ai Chi exercises.
Doctors rushed in and were very concerned when he was moving around and out of his bed so soon after the exploratory surgery. Then when they witnessed the grace and beauty of what he was doing, and saw how quickly he recovered from the surgery and anesthesia, one of them said he was going to look into signing up for T’ai Chi classes.
While a student was visiting him in the hospital, Austin surprised him by pulling the emergency cord in his hospital room. Doctors and nurses arrived swiftly on the scene, alarmed that something serious had happened. After they all assembled, wondering why they had been called, Austin turned to his student and asked him to begin demonstrating T’ai Chi.
Long before his diagnosis, Sidney Austin was inspiring students throughout his life, from those in his drum bugler’s corps to those in his Kung Fu and T’ai Chi classes. I had the blessed opportunity to write an article in the now defunct “T’ai Chi Magazine” about him and his special memorial service that so many of his beloved students and friends attended.
In the article, I explained, “Throughout his life, he was first and foremost a teacher and friend. Time and again speakers at the memorial service related incidents when Mr. Austin had reached out to help them, how he intuitively understood their problems. When they saw darkness, he shed light. When they felt despair, he offered hope.”
He offered that kind of hope to one of the students who attended his memorial service. Randy Loew said he met Austin when he was going through a difficult period in his life. He explained, “To find a human being who cared so much was wonderful. He not only saw the best in you, but he wanted you to see things from his perspective. He made me aware that there is nothing so serious or complex in life as long as you could laugh. He made me aware that there is nothing to fear in the world.”
Perhaps these wise words and teachings can be ones that also help those in the world now dealing with serious illness. Sidney Austin and the way he lived his life even when darkness was closing in was a testament to the possibilities we all have and choices we can make when confronted with illness and challenges.