A close friend of mine recently asked me how many concussions I’ve had throughout my varied careers as a Marine, a football player, a rugby player, an MMA fighter and a drunk idiot. I thought long and hard for a while before responding with, “like, diagnosed by a doctor or just times I was just pretty sure? Eventually you just stop going to the hospital for those things.”
She was mortified.
Head trauma is, of course, no laughing matter, and as the dementia seeps into the metaphorical cracks I’ve left in my brain decades before it might have otherwise, I’m sure I’ll look back on the few head to head collisions I still recall and regret them — but as I’ve mentioned previously, very few of my supposedly “athletic” accomplishments were born out of my innate athletic ability — in large part because, I really don’t have any innate athletic ability whatsoever. When it comes to contact and collision sports, there are really two kinds of athletes: those who rely on skill, finesse and coordination and those who trade on little more than brute force. To be the former, you’ve got to have some real talent. To be the latter, you just need a hard head and weak sense of self-preservation.
That approach earned me trophies and accolades that far exceeded my skill set, put me in rooms with men I had no right to call peers, and gave me this bullshit air of superiority I talk from when opining about how old injuries can inform new workouts. I write Old Man Fitness because it’s the game I’m playing anyway — just trying to beat the clock and keep this old tractor of a body running strong until the two of us find our way into the grave together. Louis C.K. may have recently been outed as a masturbating creep monster, but before all that he had a great bit about going to the doctor for an injury. He asked the doctor what to do about his ankle pain and the doctor told him to stretch it for 30 minutes a day. Louis C.K. then asked, “Okay, how long do I have to do that before my ankle gets better?”
And the doctor responds, “No, that’s just what you do until you and your shitty ankle both die.”
My shitty ankle has a metal plate, six screws, three pins and a bit of wire holding it together, along with scars on either side from multiple surgeries and a tattoo for good measure. If you were on the hunt for medical grade steel, you wouldn’t have to go any farther than my knees to find more — both of which have screws in them, along with a combination of parts out of cadavers and chunks of meat that have been yanked out of other parts of me and re-purposed into ligaments. Neither knee has any cartilage left to speak of, and if you place your hand on my knee cap as I bend my knee back and forth, you can feel the vibration of grinding resonate through my leg. My wife says it feels like “peanut butter mixed with gravel.” I’m more inclined to call it broken glass.
Scan a bit further north and you’ll find the healed remains of a fractured pelvis, then a bit higher you’ll find the metal screen that sits just above and behind my belly button from where I tore my abdominal wall. When my body fat is low enough, you can feel the screen just by brushing your hand across my abdomen, but admittedly, these days you may need to press a bit to find it. Multiple broken ribs on multiple occasions leads you up to a once separated shoulder that still gives me trouble, and around to three slipped discs in my back that I have treated with injections when they act up. A partially detached retina in my right eye combined with a genetic predisposition for retinal swelling means I’ll forever live the repercussions of not keeping my right hand up while sparring, and I haven’t even gotten to the list of broken arms, wrists, fingers, or toes. I’ve been knocked unconscious, hospitalized for both heat stroke and hypothermia, had my clothes cut off by strangers and even nurses I realized in horror that I’d gone to high school with.
I’ve been rushed into emergency surgery because my broken limbs were poisoning my blood stream with bone marrow. I’ve woken up in hospital beds with lost days, competed in martial arts tournaments with torn ligaments, won championships with broken bones and, perhaps most damning of all, I’ve looked down on others not willing to make those same physical sacrifices for the greater cause of victory. In my mind, chasing those Ws is what we’re made for. You don’t park your Corvette under show room lights and imagine beating the carbon off its pushrods on a windy mountain road — you take that damn thing out there and you chip up the paint.
Otherwise, what did you get a Corvette for?
Ah, but here’s the thing. Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe all those years I spent chasing a spot on the roster, a win, a trophy, a medal or just that fleeting sense of accomplishment was really trading my future for warm memories of my past. As a young man, I was always acutely aware that our time on this world is fleeting, and when you’re gone, you’ll either be remembered or you won’t. I wanted to be remembered, and at least in the social hierarchy of being a young man with a solid chin, fighting, football, and rugby earned me a reputation. People I didn’t know knew me, and in some strange way, I saw that as a measure of my value as a man.
I lost my dad this week. The same guy that made me play football as a kid even though I wanted to spend all my free time playing Nintendo in my room. He was covered in scars, walked with a limp, and by the time I came around, all he had left were stories about another time — back before his legs and back had given up on him, back before his old knees sounded like snapping twigs every time he stood up. My dad, I was assured, was once an incredible football player but to me, he was always an old man, adorned in scars that represented great stories, but stories that were all set in a far-off time and place I struggled to imagine. I don’t know if my dad had the finesse and natural athleticism to earn his way into rooms full of great men — my older brother certainly did — or if he forced his way in with a bloody nose, an arm in a cast and bloodshot determination in his eyes like I always had to do because the toll of either proved so great that by the time I arrived, all that was left was the stories. In his defense though, they were some great stories.
I’m not all that old a man, I’m just a well-worn one. My complete list of injuries would take more than one column to relate, and if I’m honest, I’ve probably forgotten a fair portion of them. You keep count of your first few hundred stitches, your first few broken bones, your first dramatic ride in an ambulance, but eventually you grow to lament the inconvenience of your frailty. You stop counting, you stop collecting injuries, and you start just telling stories.
My daughter turned six-months-old the same day that my father passed away, and for the first time it occurs to me that, if I’m not careful, she’ll never know me as the warrior that’s out there collecting new scars, the guy that knows, deep down inside that what I’m really good for is the fight, not the victory. She may grow to know me only as an old man — full of stories of a far-off time and place that she struggles to imagine; one where her dad is the figure of strength she’s been told he once had been.
I’m proud of my scars. I’m proud of the things I’ve accomplished and more so, of the things I overcame, but to be honest. I’m not sure that any of that matters. Among a long list of things my father taught me, one of the harder lessons was the sadness that comes with recounting stories of your better days. I don’t want to tell my daughter about a time when I was able to climb that mountain. I want to strap a pack on my back and take her with me up the slope.
Every once in a while, we all need to take a hard look at ourselves and assess the course we’re on. I wear my scars like medals pinned to my chest, but I realized that I was wrong all those years ago about the importance of being remembered. It doesn’t matter if people know my name years after I’m gone. What matters is the time I spend with my daughter, imparting who I am, or at least, the best parts of me that I can. My dad, like me, thought that he needed trophies and plaques to leave a mark on this world but they’ve all gone with him. The mark my father left on this world was the time he spent with me and my brothers. The mark he left on this world is who we became.
So, I’m going to keep chasing those stories and earning those scars but for once, with a strong sense of self-preservation. I may not think I’ll need these old knees later, but my daughter will. At least until she’s strong enough to carry the pack on her own.
Images courtesy of the author