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Requiem for a Contender

When Dad was dying the nurses bound his hands in yards of Ace bandages so he couldn’t pull out the life supports. The Buckeye Bomber, a Golden Gloves heavyweight champion, who fought the pro-circuit, Cleveland, Chicago Detroit, Kansas City, tough-guy towns— once on the same fight card as Joe Lewis— was down for the count. The boxers’ hands were crossed, the right defending his face, the left, ready to punch.

But the final round was over.

I park my suitcase under a window and roll up the sleeves of my wool cardigan. The “Physicians Only” parking lot below Dad’s room is filled with top-of-the-line luxury cars. Shining 1979 Lincolns, Caddys, Mercedes, and Jaguars reflect the day’s last light of Fort Lauderdale's coast. I count the Cadillacs and watch Dad’s nurse. Focusing on her helps me see the man I once feared. She finagles IV tubes and senses Dad’s internal landscape. A blue hospital gown covers my father’s body.

“Hello, Daddy,” I say.

“We gave him something to help him rest. He knows you’re here,” the nurse says.

I inch my way across the room and kiss my Dad’s bald head, charred from another round of radiation. A lone hair sticks to my lips. His body smells like a potion my grandmother concocted when our tomcat was dying. Graw mixed castor oil, iodine, and some fungus she scraped off a tree into a pulp, then plastered on the cat’s wounds. Tom lived.

Dad opens his mouth as if to speak to me; mucus oozes out. I flee to the window and lean against the puke-green wall. The nurse swabs Dad’s mouth with white gauze, cleans the sputum off the pillowcase, and discards the specimen in a red plastic receptacle marked Toxic. Death is messy. The nurse is going to heaven for such kindnesses.

I pray for my Father’s swift death. May God forgive him his trespasses: drinking, gambling, flaunting his mistress, and hitting Mom. Forgive him for making me gasp for breath and cower when he set the draperies on fire.

God better forgive him because I cannot. Forgiveness from me isn’t in the cards. I am numb and done. But then, another prayer flutters in my chest. It makes a foreign sound, like an exile from a cold land.

Mercy slips into my heart.

I bless the tender moments when High Roller Dad taught me to shoot craps, pick horses, and throw a punch. The nuns said these vices were unladylike, but Dad didn’t care what those women said— they had repressed my dominant hand. I had forgotten my “natural inclinations.” He is a southpaw and says I should be too.

“Don’t take no bullshit,” Dad says.

We work out in the basement below Dad’s bar.

His gym is a speed bag on a stainless-steel swivel mounted on the rafters, and a body bag he made from an Army canvas duffle stuffed with a roll of heavy carpet. He warms up by jumping rope, twisting and weaving it into precise patterns that make hissing and swooshing sounds as it cuts through the air. Dad jumps an inch; his leather shoes tap the concrete gently. My fifty-year old father can skip a three-minute round of double-unders and diagonals while I, a clumsy twelve-year old, trip on a front to back.

“Youse gotta stay in training,” Dad says.

He brings down his brown leather Everlast boxing gloves from the shelf, and wraps my fingers and hands in Ace bandages, to protect them from being bent or smashed. He laces the gloves on me, so my wrists won’t twist inside them. Dad’s mitts make me feel powerful, ready to punch and jab, but I can’t move. A boxer is his body; mine is too fat to spar. I weigh-in forty pounds more than the average sixth grader.

“The punch starts in the ball of your foot; spring off your heel, don’t think about it,” Dad says.

I hit the body-bag and miss. Hand-eye-foot coordination is too much to master, even though tiptoeing around Dad’s periphery is my talent.

“Hit clean, The opponent is you,” Dad says.

I could not float like a butterfly or sting like a bee, like his hero, Muhammad Ali.

Dad moves on to the black leather speed bag, “nev nev nev nev nev,” it sings each time he hits it— faster than I can count— nev nev nev nev nev, a sound so subversive I want to cry, but that is not allowed so I pucker my lips and pout, nev nev nev nev nev, N-e-v-e-r will I make my father proud.

I raise my arms to box with God and graze the bag; “nev” it says.

“Let the bag come back to you. Stay light. Breath,” Dad says.

I say the if only prayer. “If only I had the power to force these hands and feet to punch there would be no jeers or boos or catcalls. If only I had the power to transform this body, be Dad’s fit girl. If Only.

Dad’s life-lessons to a blossoming daughter are simple.

“Don’t take no bullshit. Believe you can win. Fight clean.”

Clare Simons’ essays about Amma, India’s hugging saint were published in Parabola and Spirituality & Health Magazines. Her boxing essay,“The Greatest” appeared on the official Muhammad Ali website along with works by Joyce Carol Oats and Norman Mailer. Anti-Heroine Chic, bioStories, Faith Hope & Fiction

Manifest Station, Persimmon Tree and The Write Launch published her creative nonfiction. Simons was the press person and gatekeeper to the stories of the terminally ill patient-plaintiffs defending Oregon’s Death With Dignity Act at the U.S. Supreme Court, and worked for passage of assisted dying laws in several states. Publication of her memoir is forthcoming.   

Image credit: Kelly Wright via Ideogram


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