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Bruce & Brandon Lee, Loss, & Lessons Learned

Brandon LeeEvery once in a while, we encounter things unexpectedly that impact our lives forever. I want to share something that has deeply affected me and, just perhaps, might move some of you who are reading this as well. I’ve been a fan of martial arts since I was a kid, and this was largely influenced by my discovery of Bruce Lee as a teenager. Some die-hard fans might find this sacrilegious to say, but I think his movies have a high cheesiness factor overall, especially by today’s movie-making standards. Although this point could be debated, what is fairly undeniable is that Bruce Lee’s onscreen presence was like the force of a hurricane. He is what made these movies work at all. There was an electricity and palpable charisma about him that is rare to behold.

Bruce Lee – Larger Than Life

From reading several books about his life, it seems that his off-screen persona was as equally intense and compelling. In essence, he was just playing himself on screen. He lived with such a passion and fire that it was very sad to see extinguished due to a cerebral edema at young age of 32. He is immortalized by the legion of fans still pore over his movies, writings, and associated lore. Although 1993’s Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was a highly fictionalized account of his life, one of the interesting plot lines is that Bruce Lee is fighting a demon (which represents a family curse) in his dreams that is intent on destroying him and his family. In the movie, Lee in essence sacrifices himself to finally stop the demon and save his son, Brandon (and daughter, Shannon). So, the message was that Lee’s untimely death served a greater purpose – his family’s legacy would live on through his children, particularly his son who was thought to bare the family curse.

Brandon Lee’s Tragic Death

Unfortunately, real life is not like Hollywood. In a tragic twist of events, just a couple of months before Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story was released, Bruce’s son, Brandon Lee, died on the set of The Crow. A prop gun had not been properly checked prior to a film take and an actual bullet was lodged in the pistol when it was fired at Brandon. He immediately collapsed, and despite desperate attempts to save his life, died in surgery. What perhaps made his death even more eerie is that The Crow was about a man (Lee’s character) who was brutally killed along with his fiancee, and he comes back to avenge their murders.

I was taking martial arts at the time I heard the news of Brandon’s death. I remembering hearing the news right before I went to the evening class. A wave of profound sadness hit me and, unbeknownst to me at the time, would continue to affect me for years to come. When I informed my fellow students at the dojo, they initially thought I was joking. Brandon was just coming into his own as a martial artist and an actor. He had the family name, looks, intelligence, and he shared some of his father’s charisma, wisdom, and intensity.  He was only 28 years old when he died and engaged to be married. How could this be?

The Crow was completed and released in May of 1994, about one year after Brandon’s death. It was the number one movie in America upon its release and received strong critical praise, especially for Brandon’s performance. I saw the movie at the theaters and was enveloped by another wave of sadness. What a performance that he gave! The imagery, poetry, darkness, and music…the loss. It was all captured on the screen for viewers to celebrate Brandon’s arrival and mourn his departure. I think that I only watched The Crow once in theaters. Even though I liked it, I found it too sad.

Years later, I saw The Crow again on DVD. This time, I watched some of the extras, including Brandon’s eerily prophetic last interview.

Prophetic Words of Wisdom

In this interview, Brandon discusses how life can be fleeting, and snatched from us at any time. At 9:18 in the video, he quotes from The Sheltering Sky, a 1949 Paul Bowles novel:

Because we don’t know when we will die, we get to think of life as an inexhaustible well. And yet everything happens only a certain number of times, and a very small number really. How many more times will you remember a certain afternoon of your childhood, an afternoon that is so deeply a part of your being that you can’t even conceive of your life without it? Perhaps four, or five times more? Perhaps not even that. How many more times will you watch the full moon rise? Perhaps twenty. And yet it all seems limitless…
Brandon, wise beyond his 28 years, grasped the meaning of this quote. So much so, that he and his fiancée had them on their wedding invitations. Sadly, now it is engraved on his tombstone. I encourage you to watch the video clip of Brandon reciting this passage- he speaks with a clarity and conviction that are haunting, given what happens within days after this interview.

There is a wonderful line from the movie Blade Runner, “The light the burns twice as bright burns half as long” that aptly captures the lives of Bruce and Brandon Lee. For their short time here, they shown so very, very brightly. They embraced life with such zeal and fire that they blaze examples of how we should “seize the day.”

What Can We Learn?

But perhaps it is Brandon’s message in his last interview that I will take most to heart. I have periodically reflected upon his prophetic words of wisdom since I first heard them. Life is magical – powerful, and filled with infinite possibilities. Yet, at the same time, it is limited. How many more sunsets will I see? How many more times will I walk around the lake with my wife? How many times will my son want to hold my hand while we walk? All are limited.

One might be tempted to view this as a depressing reality. How sad to think this way about our lives! However, I know this is not what Brandon Lee was meaning to convey. Rather, his message was to celebrate and savor these moments. We should strive to cherish each day, every rainbow, every sunrise, time with family and friends, the laughter of our children…for life is a beautiful gift that should not be taken for granted.

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