Mr. Bill Canegata, Sixth Dan Black Belt, passed away yesterday, December 9, 2009, exactly three years to the day after Anna Bahceci, George Wimpfheimer, and I passed our Black Belt tests.
Mr. Bill lived with cancer for many years. He was a man of great strength who knew how to control pain and discomfort. He never complained. Though Mr. Bill could no longer instruct us, he still showed up at the do-jang every day and watched us progress toward our Black Belts. He gave us advice and helped us with our forms. He came to our promotion test and sat and watched, calm and still as a boulder. When the test was over, he presented us with our new Black Belts and tied them around our waists.
In 1996, my childhood friend Sandra Isham Vreeland died of AIDS after living with HIV for close to fifteen years. She contracted the disease after receiving a blood transfusion. She had two children, and fought to stay alive for them. She died on my birthday, August 5th. I drove out to Sagaponack, LI, for her memorial service. Her mother, Sheila, was also a good friend of mine and I approached her and murmured that I felt horrible that Sandra had died on my birthday. Sheila looked at me with her penetrating, calm blue eyes and said that there could be no greater honor. “After such a long fight,” she said, “she chose your birthday to let go and finally find peace. That was her birthday gift to you.” Sheila probably never knew the enormous impact her words had on me. What amazed me most was that she was able to offer such comfort when she herself must have been in an agony of grief. But Sheila always believed in a power greater than all of us, in some kind of greater meaning and other planes of existence that we cannot perceive. I decided at that moment that I would try to look at death the way Sheila did, and not the way I was taught to, which was with terror and fear.
There is most definitely a weird synchronicity at play in my life. My father’s best friend, Willie Morris, was buried on my birthday in 1999. My godfather, Buddy Bazelon, passed away a few days before my birthday and on the night of August 5th, 1995, we were sitting shiva in my godmother’s apartment. One week later, Kevin and I got married. Thanks to Sheila Isham, I chose to accept these moments as an honor, rather than some kind of punishment, or karmic retribution.
So it seems only appropriate that Mr. Bill would leave us on December 9th, the day Anna, George, and I passed our Black Belt test. Almost everyone we started with, even those who went on and tested for their Black Belts, have left the do-jang. Not us. We persevere. Not in small part because of Mr. Bill and his courage, and the way he taught us to show up, even when we were sad, or sick, or in emotional pain.
In fact, I think I’ll suit up and go today. Spend an hour with Mr. Luis Sevilla, who replaced Mr. Bill as our instructor, and went at least twice a week to visit Mr. Bill in his last months. Another wonderful, honorable man.