I plug up the charging port of my phone with chocolate—dark, Bernard Callebaut, delish—on the plane on the way to London, so, in the gym of a college in Brigend, Wales, I need to borrow a phone equipped with international roaming to text Calgary. People are good; I’m given not just the phone but an invitation to FaceTime. But I just need the text message, and I just need to send three little words.
Jane: She nailed it.
Sean texts back fireworks. And I know, 6894 kilometers apart, we are both breathing easy for the first time in months.
She nailed it.
She did it.
She got here, and she nailed it.
Traditional Tang Soo Do Federation, Black Belt Test, April 25, 2019, Wales
Rewind one agonizing month and three days. It is the end of a horrible night—horrible month—horrible quarter—and I am at the Alberta Children’s Hospital with Flora. They’re talking admission. She’s crying.
Flora: How am I going to get to Wales?
The rational answer is, you’re not. You can’t, right now, get out of the hospital bed to go to the washroom.
Jane: I promise. I will get you to Wales.
She believes me.
The doctors—and her father—don’t.
But she believes me.
And so, I must believe myself.
Rewind seven years. Flora’s first Tang Soo Do class. Her motivation for joining is pretty simple: her big brother and his friend disappear off the Common to go to Tang Soo Do two nights a week, and she wants to be one of the gang.
I don’t want her to start the martial art any more than I wanted Cinder to. My spine, pelvis, joints are still paying the price for my brief glory days in the dojang, on the mats, in the ring.
I don’t want her to damage any part of her precious self.
But even at seven, Flora is unstoppable.
Her brother and his friend both quit Tang Soo Do later that year. Flora doesn’t miss a class.
Pre-test pep talk from Master Experience Senior
If you’re wondering why a Canadian girl practicing a Korean martial art—that’s what Tang Soo Do is—has to go to Wales for her black belt test—you’ve figured out, yeah, that’s why we are in Wales? her black belt test?—the short answer is globalization, Cold War, and warped patriotism. I can give you the long answer sometime in person; it makes no sense either, but it is what it is.
Anyway. She doesn’t have to go to Wales. She could test for her black belt in Calgary, under her local master. And she could do it next month, next year.
Flora: I have to go to Wales in April.
A year ago, when she started the arduous pre-tests required for her black belt, and the possibility of testing in Wales before a panel of strange masters was floated before her, she wasn’t sure she wanted to go. In fact, she was sure she didn’t want to go. It was too scary, it was too big, it was… No. She didn’t want to go.
Flora: Also, it’s so expensive. And we don’t have the money.
Jane: If you want to go, we will find the money.
We talk about it now, why she didn’t want to go. She’s not sure. She was already battling her illness, although she didn’t quite know it yet. Was that a factor, on some level? Maybe.
Flora: Maybe I was just afraid.
There are many definitions of courage. The best one: doing the thing you need, want to do even though you’re fucking terrified.
I practiced the Korean martial art of Taekwon-do with the same kind of devotion Flora gives to Tang Soo Do, between the ages of 11 and 27. Then, babies, life. Spinal injuries.
I have a peculiar relationship with my martial arts history. On the one hand, it’s the reason I can’t jump or run. Or skate or ski—not that I care about that so much, winter sports, yuck. Or walk very fast or do that position in yoga or that stretch, ever again. But also—those years in the dojang, those hours in the ring… they’ve formed so much of who I am now. For better or for worse… mostly for the better. I like me. So. Could I be who I am without them?
My personal history with the martial arts also means that I keep myself at a bit of a distance from Flora’s path in her martial art. She doesn’t want me to watch her classes, and, even as I drive her to them—first twice a week, then three times, then four—I am grateful for that. I drop her off, and I read, write, shop. Pick her back up. Never give advice. Neither criticism nor encouragement. And absolutely no backseat coaching. But, we do talk about tangentally relevant stuff.
Flora: I hate the other kids’ parents.
Jane: In general, or in class?
Flora: In class. Why would you put a kid in martial arts if they didn’t want to be there?
At nine, she’s resentful of the classmates who act out, who need to be cajoled to attend, work, perform. By 11, she’s typed certain parents as “athletic failures” who are trying to “live out their dreams” through their kids.
Flora: And seriously, ok, if you’re going to make your kids do martial arts—the least you could do is not criticize their forms and kicks from the sidelines. You know?
I know. I hated parents too, when I was a coach and an instructor.
Calgary Crew pep talk from the Masters Experience, before Traditional Tang Soo Do Federation United Kingdom Open Championships Tournament (April 27, 2019)
I don’t ask Flora what she gets out of her time on the dojang floor. That’s for her to know—for her to reveal if she wants to.
She never really tells me. Sometimes, it looks like peace. In that last awful quarter, it is the only peace she has.
I don’t quite remember anymore what it is I got out of it, to be honest. Mastery, accomplishment, yes. Release, relief.
A kid, a teenage girl, treated as a peer, mentor by adults—a sense of belonging. Empowerment.
Doctor: So I’d really like you to rethink Wales.
Flora: I’m going to Wales. Mom promised she’d take me, no matter what.
Doctor: I see. Do you think your mom—do you really think your mom can handle it?
Jane: That doesn’t enter into the equation. I told her, I promised, I would take her to Wales.
We repeat the conversation, three, six times over the three weeks Flora is in the hospital. Including on the last day.
Doctor: You know what I think about Wales.
Flora: You know what I think about Wales.
Sean: Are you really sure you can get her to Wales?
I think, perhaps, this is the legacy of my time in the dojang. I am terrified. I feel I am taking my child out of the hospital and out of the country against medical advice.
I am fully aware of everything that could go wrong. Horribly, horribly wrong.
I am not, actually, sure I can get her on the plane. Into her uniform. Onto the dojang floor for the test. I am sure of only one thing.
She wants to go to Wales, she needs to go to Wales, and I promised her she would go.
The worst thing that happens on the way to Wales is that I plug up the charging pod of my iPhone with chocolate, and so can’t take photographs or text.
Everything else goes perfectly.
Flora: Too perfectly. Aren’t you afraid?
Jane: Hush. No jinxes.
We allot extra time for everything, and we meet every deadline. She’s a rock star. I keep on waiting for her, exhausted, to come apart.
Flora: After my test. I think I might be a mess after the test.
We get to Wales on a sunny Tuesday afternoon at 4 p.m. after about 20 hours in transit. At 8 p.m., it’s raining, and Flora’s in her first Welsh Tang Soo Do class with the Welsh Master. At midnight, she’s passed out in my arms, shaking.
Flora: We made it.
We don’t doubt, neither one of us, she’s going to make it to her test on Thursday.
Hill with a view, Wales, somewhere between Porthcawl and Treorchy
On Wednesday morning, an 8:30 a.m. class, ninety minutes of focused practice for the six Canadian students, four of whom ate testing for their black belts. When we get back to our Welsh lodgings, I feed her, tell her to rest, and take myself for a walk, on which I cry.
I really didn’t know how I was going to get her here.
OMFG, I did.
I have, over the past four, five months, been a really shitty, powerless, useless parent. Her illness blindsided me. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know what to do with it—and I resented its encroachment into my creative, professional and personal life as much as I resented the suffering it inflicted on her.
But I got her to fucking Wales, and tomorrow, she’s going to test for her black belt, and while this is not atonement for the horrible things I did, said, and, worst of all, thought over the past four months… this moment is what matters.
I come back to the lodgings with aching eyes but a light heart.
Find Flora puking into the wastebasket in our room.
The puking continues for 12 hours. Food poisoning, the flu. I don’t know, it doesn’t matter.
I work to keep her hydrated. Feed her Gravol, which she pukes up, and Tylenol cold and flu medication, which I think she keeps down.
Flora: Can I have some chocolate?
She probably shouldn’t, but what the fuck, what could possibly be worse? I feed her chocolate, she pukes it up.
Flora: How can this happen? How am I going to test for my black belt tomorrow?
Jane: It doesn’t matter if it’s food poisoning or the flu. These things usually last no more than 24 hours. You’re going to stop puking by noon tomorrow, and the test isn’t until 6 p.m. Everything will be fine.
I don’t believe a word I say, but I talk as if I do.
Flora: Suppose I’m still puking in the evening?
Jane: We will strategically position a garbage can within lunging reach.
I’m joking. And she laughs. And pukes some more.
She’s puke-free for a solid 16 hours when we arrive at the community college that’s hosting the test. White as a sheet and achy all over, but puke-free. Still, her master speaks to the Welsh master organizing the test, tells him Flora was sick all of yesterday—is worried she might start throwing up again on the floor.
Welsh Master: Wouldn’t be the first time sometime puked at their black belt test.
He fetches a garbage can from beside the entrance to the gym, and positions it within lunging distance of Flora. Tips her a wink.
As it turns out, she doesn’t need it.
Jane: When the Master was talking to you at the first part of the test, what was he saying?
I’m expecting… I don’t know. Words of encouragement. “Do your best.” “I know you’ve been sick, I’ll cut you some slack.”
Flora: He told me to kick faster.
Ah, martial arts instructors. Your sensitivity and empathy made me the ruthless bitch I am today.
She nailed it.
No puking, from flu nor nerves.
A flawless performance.
I am not a fawning parent. I am a merciless critic. There was, actually, one kick during which her hip position left something to be desired. But, you should have seen her spar…
Flora’s teammate sparring one tough chick from South Africa (April 27)
Rewind three months.
Flora: Will you teach me how to spar?
I’m… taken aback.
Over the last year or two, every once in a while, Flora and I goof around in our crowded living room, and I show her how we taught sparring strategy and movement.
Flora: We don’t do any of that in class. We just fight, and not very often. And I’m terrible at it.
She is. Everyone at her school, forgive the bluntness, is. Sparring isn’t just throwing random kicks and punches at each other. It’s strategy, it’s art. Dance and a game.
I used to be really good at it. But it’s been a long time. And I can’t jump or bounce, and there’s one leg I cannot balance on at all, and them fucked up hips…
Two weeks later, I’m coaching Flora’s entire class, including her instructors, on sparring strategy. It’s a little surreal. “Listen to the cripple on the floor.” “Do what I say, not what I can’t do.”
Thing is… I’m still good at explaining this shit to people. Angles, circles, reaction times, telegraphing, fake outs.
We don’t have a lot of time, so I stick to three basic rules and drill them in deep.
In her test, Flora applies every single one.
Flora: I fell on my ass twice.
Jane: Neither of those times did you get hit as you fell. So, you know. I call that a win.
Calgary Crew and their medals (April 27)
The test is on Thursday. Friday is a day of rest.
Saturday, a tournament.
Neither of us gives a flying fuck about the tournament. This trip was never about the tournament. It was about that black belt test rite of passage. If I can’t get her to the tournament—if she can’t get to the tournament—if she gets to the tournament and gets eliminated first round, starts puking or gets sick before she gets on the floor—it doesn’t matter. She’s already won.
Flora: I made it to Wales.
Jane: You made it to Wales. And you’re going home with a black belt.
Flora: They didn’t tell me I passed.
Jane: You know you passed.
She knows it too.
PS At the tournament, she doesn’t medal. But, she doesn’t choke, faint, falter or puke. She performs a beautiful, perfect traditional form and she survives a sparring match against a much better opponent. She cheers on her dojang mates. Makes new friends.
Finds out she nailed her black belt test, as did all of the Calgarians.
Flora: Fuck, yeah.
Coming home with a black belt.
Now, swap “girl” for “boy,” and enjoy: