Shannon Lee, 51, lost her father, Bruce Lee, before grade school. Now she's the chairperson of the board of directors for the Bruce Lee Foundation. "Be Water," an ESPN 30 for 30 on her father's life, premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
Growing up, I felt a sadness. A sadness that I didn't have any tangible memories of my father, Bruce Lee. I was 4 years old when he passed away, and for so long, throughout my childhood and even into my adulthood, I yearned for those visual and auditory memories -- anything that would draw me closer to him beyond a picture of the two of us.
I would rack my brain, thinking, "There's got to be a memory somewhere." When I say memories, I'm referring to stories other kids would have about their fathers telling them a funny story or a moment when they would remember their fathers picking them up and saying something meaningful and loving. I've tried so hard to access those memories, but I haven't figured out how to quite dig that deep. Maybe one day.
But I have a different memory of him in the form of his energy. For a long time, I felt like I had a weird secret. It was one of those things where you know you have a feeling about something, and the feeling is really strong and you keep thinking, "Am I crazy? I'm crazy, right? How could I have a memory of his energy?" But then I started to think about it. And for me, the feeling was I know this person -- that's really the only way to describe it. I know this person deeply, my father, without really remembering the time we shared for those four years before his death [from cerebral edema -- brain swelling, in this case thought to be caused by hypersensitivity to a medication -- in 1973 at age 32].
In place of those tangible memories, I have the memory of his energy, presence and love. It is the memory of the quality of his essential nature -- its safety, its power and its radiance. For so long, I didn't realize that this could be a form of memory.
Of course, my father is Bruce Lee. The martial artist. The movie star. The cultural icon. The philosopher. There is so much I know about my father from his martial arts teachings, movies and philosophies. And all of these aspects of my father's life help me connect to this memory of his energy.
It's not lost on me that through martial arts, I've been able to tap into those deeper energetic memories of my father. Martial arts provided me with many gifts. It gave me the gift of confidence, the gift of true connection to my inner self and world. When you get to the level of being in a ring and sparring, there's a feeling that goes on inside your body. You have to dig deep to understand how much is needed from a mastery standpoint to maintain conscious control of your actions while being able to think quickly on your feet. I would not call myself a martial artist, but I would call myself a student of the art and the daughter of a master artist.
My mother [Linda Lee Cadwell] always allowed my brother Brandon and me to watch all of our father's films, even when we were too young to really know what was taking place. We had his movie posters hanging everywhere in our home. When he was filming, we'd go to set. We would watch the films in theaters. We'd watch on VHS. And when I was little, after his death, I caught on to his energy in each film. His energy just pops off the screen, and you're instantly magnetized. He is a force of nature in his films, and that was never lost on me.
Before my father's death, martial arts were a given in our household. Everybody did it, and it didn't matter how young or old you were -- you were going to participate in martial arts. After my father died, it was very difficult for Brandon and me to continue the art.
My father was this powerful, energetic force of nature. And when he was no longer with us, it was hard for my older brother and me to feel comfortable in martial arts with all of the fame that was fast incoming in the wake of my father's death. There were different points growing up when we'd spend some time with our father's friends and students, taking lessons and learning the art. But it always felt very uncomfortable for me.
As an adult, I came back to the study of martial arts. I wanted to know that side of my father better. I wanted to strengthen this memory of him that so many people got to experience in the flesh. I studied the martial art [Jeet Kune Do] that my father created. I started studying with one of my father's students, Ted Wong, who has since passed away. For me, that moment in time was very important. It was important to understand and connect with my father in this art form, but it also helped me understand my father and his philosophies.
Throughout my life, there has been connectivity between myself and my father. In all of my ups and downs, I've felt his energy. But sometimes it wasn't just his energy. It was his creativity, his poetic approach and wonder for life. These are all things that I saw in my brother, Brandon.
My brother and I shared a special bond and common love of anything creative. When I got into acting in my early 20s, I did so because of Brandon. He was extremely poetic, romantic, intelligent and well-spoken -- all things that would be used to describe my father. There was something that Brandon and I shared very much in our souls, that poetic approach to life and a certain amount of wonder. It wasn't until later in my life that I realized this was something that my father also shared in his soul.
When my brother passed away in 1993 [he was accidentally shot and killed at age 28 by a prop gun on set while filming "The Crow"], I experienced overwhelming grief and pain. Right before my brother's death, I told him that I wanted to pursue an acting career like him. He told me how excited he was for me to move back to Los Angeles from New Orleans and to help me get my career off the ground. We were so excited to live in the same city. Then he was killed before I even moved out West.
I decided I would still move to L.A. and pursue an acting career. But I was in so much pain. The grief overcame me most days, and I fell into a deep depression. I had friends in the business, as a result of my father and Brandon, who helped me and provided access that I wouldn't have had otherwise. But I was not in a place to succeed.
I had a constant mantra playing in my head: "Help me."
About two years after Brandon's death, my father helped me. He helped me in the form of his words, his philosophies. There were a series of books that were going to be published by Tuttle Publishing, organized and edited by John Little, who worked closely with my mother to go through the archives of my father's writings. There were three phonebook-sized volumes of Xerox copies. Little and my mother started going through all these writings to turn them into books.
Throughout his life and career, Bruce Lee found himself caught between two worlds: Hollywood and Hong Kong. "Be Water" premieres on Sunday, June 7th at 9 p.m. ET on ESPN.
I started flipping through the pages and realizing that there were so many words that I had never read before. It was captivating, and I was completely drawn into my father's words. Of course, I knew some of his writings, his major philosophies -- especially if they were in the films.
"Be water, my friend."
"Using no way as way, having no limitation as limitation."
"Showing off is the fool's idea of glory."
These new words spoke to me. I came across his quote about the medicine for my suffering:
"The medicine for my suffering I had within me from the very beginning, but I did not take it. My ailment came from within myself, but I did not observe it until this moment. Now I see that I will never find the light unless, like the candle, I am my own fuel."
For the first time in my life, it occurred to me that everything was in my own hands. Through my father's words, I was able to come to terms with the fact that I was waiting for something to rescue me from this situation of grief and depression. But life doesn't offer up some magic cure. So I asked myself, "How can you change how you feel? How can something from the outside change this loss and this grief?" I was the only person who could make friends with that, who could go deeply into that notion and explore it and come out on the other side. My father's words helped me truly ask myself, "How might you find the medicine for your own suffering?"
As time goes on, I continue to work on myself, grow and evolve as a human being. And during this self-evolution, I find myself drawn to different philosophies from my father at various moments. They may mean so much more to you after you've had an experience that can directly relate. I find that experience happens over and over again with his writing. And it's the reason I decided to shift my career and focus on the Bruce Lee Foundation and preserving my father's legacy.
That's the thing about my father's legacy. Some people know him as the martial artist. The movie star. The cultural icon. The philosopher. I got to know my father through all of those things. But it's his words that connected me to the memory of his energy. The memory of his being. The force of his nature.