Bruce Lee Helped Me Come to Terms With the Death of My Son

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Photo: John Seb Barber/Flickr

I hadn’t planned on getting in a fight with Bruce Lee.

Especially not four decades after he died.

Until the summer of 2005, I didn’t think very often about Lee. I’d seen some of his movies. I’d eaten at what was reported to be his favorite Chinese restaurant in Seattle where his photos are proudly on display. My first son, Phoenix, had a onesie bearing his picture. Lee had even been the martial-arts teacher to the father of one of my friends.

When Lee died in 1973 at age 32, he was buried at Lake View Cemetery in Seattle, the city where he’d attended college, opened his first martial-arts studio, and met his wife. Lake View has lush, rolling hills where people ride bikes, run, and go for walks. In the summer, you can hear children play at the park next to it. In a way, despite all the death, it’s a place teeming with life.

That’s why my husband, Mike, and I chose it for our sparkly, joyful boy Phoenix when he died suddenly on July 7, 2005. He was 7 months and 4 days old when he died of bacterial meningitis strain B, a rare disease for which, at that time, a vaccine wasn’t yet available in the U.S.

There are a few clear things I remember from that day. They are among the last sharp memories I would have for a long time: the sound Phoenix made at 5 a.m. that woke us to discover he had a fever; the doctor in the ER early that morning who told us that our son only had the flu and he’d be fine; the nagging feeling I had that something was really wrong; hearing the word “meningitis” when we went back to the hospital later that day; the feel of Phoenix’s hand as I held it while the doctor performed CPR and how I forced myself to keep singing lullabies so that my voice would be the last thing my son heard. And I remember that when he died, only 12 hours after his first symptom, I wanted to die too.

But you don’t. The heart keeps pumping, even when you will it not to. The lungs keep on breathing.

And Mike and I needed to take care of burying our son.

A few days later on a sunny afternoon, we were surrounded by our protective group of family and friends as we went to Lake View to pick out Phoenix’s grave. As the cemetery manager showed us the available plots, my legs were shaking so hard that my best friend, Jen, knelt behind me to hold them and steady them. All these years later, I can still feel her hands, holding me up.

And I remember the middle-aged woman we didn’t know approaching our group. “Excuse me,” she called out. “Do you know where Bruce Lee’s grave is?”

And so it began.

Stunned and angry, I turned to her and spit out the words, “We are picking the place to bury our son.” She murmured an apology and backed away.

It was the first time I’d told a stranger that my son was dead. From the second he died, the world had become a place where I no longer belonged. Everything I thought I understood suddenly didn’t make sense. I had no idea how to be a childless parent. I was a stranger, even to myself.

But there, at the cemetery, enough of a twinge of my former polite self reemerged that I felt badly I’d snapped at the woman. In fact, once I myself had gone to that cemetery as a tourist to see Lee’s grave. So I turned to a friend and asked, “Can you go tell her it’s just over that hill?”

I didn’t know it that day, but I’d give those directions countless times in the years to come after Mike and I decided to bury Phoenix on a beautiful slope not far from Lee’s grave.

That first summer, as Mike and I fumbled our way through grief, we went to Phoenix’s grave often. On our wedding anniversary a month after he died, we tried bringing a picnic lunch, only to find we couldn’t eat. Most days, we simply sat next to his headstone in each other’s arms. Sometimes we’d lie on the grass, trying to get as close to our boy as we could, and weep.

No matter what we were doing there, one constant seemed to be that on many days someone would wander over or call to us from afar, “Hey, do you know where Bruce Lee is buried?”

Furious, Mike would tell them we were at our son’s grave and they needed to show respect. When I was alone, I would steel myself when I saw someone meandering among the headstones, knowing the question that was likely coming.

Some of the free-floating anger I felt about our son’s death now had a focus: Bruce Lee. I began to see him as an otherworldly enemy intruding on the only private time I could have with my child. I was having a one-sided fight with a dead man. A dead kung fu master.

There were times I regretted burying our son near what, for some, was a tourist attraction. What must it be like for the loved ones of Bruce Lee, I wondered? Especially because buried next to Lee is his beloved son, Brandon, only 8 when his father died, who was killed at the age of 28 during an accident on the set of his film “The Crow.”

Bruce and Brandon Lee’s family were more forgiving than me. They erected a bench across from the graves of father and son so that visitors would have somewhere to sit. They even made a stone path to the graves so the grass wouldn’t wear down. Could they ever go visit in private, I wondered? And could I find a way to mourn my own son without becoming bitter and irritated by the intrusions?

And then one day, I arrived at the cemetery to find a note on Phoenix’s grave, next to photos of two young children I didn’t recognize. “I am visiting from California and I came to this cemetery to find Bruce Lee’s grave,” the note began. “But I got lost and I found Phoenix instead.” The writer went on to explain how he’d sat at our son’s grave and sang his children’s favorite songs and left the school photos of his kids “to keep Phoenix company.”

With that one act, I softened. American culture doesn’t do a very good job with grief. There isn’t a place for it. We hide away our dying and our dead, as if by not thinking about death, we could avoid our own destiny. There was a time when grieving families wore dark clothes, arm bands, and veils to indicate mourning. Nearly a century ago, etiquette expert Emily Post devoted an entire chapter in her book to tips for supporting the bereaved. But now, we want to rush past grief. Along the way, we’ve lost our language for consoling those who mourn. And the fear of saying the wrong thing too often means we don’t say anything at all as we try to pretend nothing has changed.

But those who go to Lee’s grave remember, I’ve come to see over the years. Their affection for him is big enough to include his life and his death. They visit to honor him and pay their respects in the best way they know how. Yes, grieving a stranger is different than grieving someone you knew in life. But grief isn’t a competition.

A year and a half after Phoenix died, Mike and I had our second son, Gabriel. He’s 9 now and sometimes goes to the cemetery with us. For him, it’s always been a place to play. A big park. We teach him not to walk on grave and to be respectful. Some days his laughter rings out loud as he hides behind the gravestones.

Last year, for the first time, I decided to take Gabriel to see Bruce Lee’s grave. After all, someday when Mike and I are gone, our ashes tucked in next to Phoenix, he’ll probably get asked for directions by a lost tourist.

When we’d arrived at the cemetery earlier that afternoon, I’d seen a group of people at Bruce and Brandon Lee’s graves. But as evening approached and clouds started to gather in the sky, we found that we had them to ourselves.

There were flowers neatly arranged on both their graves. The air was silent as I explained to Gabriel who they were and why people asked us about them.

What I didn’t tell him then but someday he will understand is that in the decades ahead, when the memory of fame recedes, fewer people will seek out Bruce Lee’s grave. Rather, those passing by will simply see a parent, buried beside a beloved son who had died young.

Just as I will be.

Bruce Lee Helped Me Come to Terms With the Death of My Son