The following essay was published in the May 2018 issue of JAAPA. You can find more essays in The Art of Medicine, JAAPA’s award-winning humanities department.
I held Eddie’s right arm at the elbow and wrist.
“How did this happen?” I said as I rotated the swollen mass of his palm toward the ceiling. Ruby-red streaks ran from his bulging hand down his forearm like the tail of a comet.
“I stuck a damn toothpick in my hand,” he said. It had only taken a few days for whatever was crawling on the tip of that toothpick to find the sheaths of his tendons and spread from finger to elbow.
“Are you right-handed, Eddie?” I asked.
“Yeah,” he said. “No one ever could get me to switch to southpaw.”
“Southpaw. You were a boxer?” I asked, and he nodded.
I tried to picture the octogenarian with his mouth full of teeth, his wispy white hair black and full, his skin smooth over muscles forged on the heavy bag of a boxing gym.
“Where did you fight?” I asked.
“Mostly the Midwest. 67 fights, all professional. I never messed with the amateurs. Needed the money.”
“That’s impressive,” I said and turned my attention back to Eddie’s infected hand.
“You know, I saw Sugar Ray fight when I was 10 years old.” Eddie said. “Cost me 10 cents.”
“Sugar Ray…” I counted back the decades in my head. “… Robinson?” I nearly dropped Eddie’s hand. Sugar Ray Robinson, the greatest boxer of all time. “In person?”
“Of course,” Eddie said. “How else would I watch him fight?”
Boxers of Sugar Ray’s and Eddie’s generations fought longer matches than boxers today. Fights for a world title belt were especially long: 15 rounds. They were matches of endurance and determination as much as skill. In those final rounds, the crowd knew that regardless of the outcome, the fighters were special, worthy of admiration just for weathering the punches, for staying on their feet, for pressing on despite every reason to quit.
That last stretch of the fight was known as the championship rounds. When the final bell rang, both fighters would hold their hands high over their heads. Not because they knew the outcome on the scorecards, but because they knew that few had ever come this far.
The next day Eddie went to the OR, where surgeons flayed open his hand and found the missing tip of a toothpick. They sent him back to his hospital room with his arm encased in bulky bandages, suspended from a hook above his bed to keep it elevated.
As the sun crept lower in the sky and evening approached, Eddie became restless and confused. When he tried to climb out of bed, his nurse called for help.
I walked to the window at the back of Eddie’s room and opened the blinds to let in the last remnants of daylight. Then I walked back to Eddie’s bed side and leaned on the side rail. “Ah, it’s that young man who likes Sugar Ray,” he said. “That’s right,” I said. “Good memory.”
“Now how would I forget something like that?” he said. “You know, I used to walk around the ring before every fight, feeling the canvas with my feet. I wanted to know how hard it was. They used to call a soft canvas a ‘puncher’s ring’ and a hard canvas a ‘boxer’s ring.’ You know why?”
“Soft canvas makes it hard to move. It slows you down, gives a big puncher a better chance to land a shot. Hard canvas gives you better footing; it lets you throw a punch and get away.”
Eddie raised an eyebrow. “Well, you’re smarter than you look, huh?” he said.
I pulled a chair closer to Eddie’s bed and sat down. “The sort of smart you only get from being punched in the face.”
The sun finally disappeared as Eddie told me about his boxing days. And then about how he lied to join the Navy at the age of 17. And about his brief career as the bouncer at an illegal brothel, “the hound guarding the chicken coop,” he called it. He told me how he saw the country as a long-haul trucker and then settled down as a short-order cook.
“You’ve certainly done a lot with your life,” I said as I stood to leave.
“Yeah,” he said. “And what are you going to do with yours?”
An old boxer can tell you that there is no shortcut to the championship rounds. You get there by getting off your stool and grinding through every minute of the fight. You keep your hands moving and your feet bouncing off the canvas, until the toll of the final bell.
“I’m not sure yet,” I said.
“You’ll find it,” Eddie said. “Or it’ll find you.”
I nodded and left Eddie with his hand held high above his head.