In the stifling heat my breath comes fast and heavy. What the fuck am I even doing here? What the fuck am I trying to accomplish? I'm sitting on the mat, maybe dying, a forty something dad playacting at being a fighter. This is my mid-life crisis, this is so, so stupid. This has to be the end for me, assuming I can get my heartbeat under control, assuming I don't just peg out here on the mat. I can't do this anymore.
"It's okay man, it's okay, you just need to breathe through it. You're fine, you're okay." The voice of my training partner, gentle and kind. My partner, the maniac that drove me to such a state, that I think I might die, he sits next to me and shows me how to breathe, how to calm my body. He teaches and guides me through it, and in a few minutes I actually am okay, the panic settles down, and maybe this isn't my last class after all. "You're alright? Okay. Now lets get back to work." And back to work we go.
There is something that happens on the mats or in the cage, this shared energy when you're rolling or sparring, a transfer of intention that the guys don't really talk about much, but its real. There is a delicate balance to be struck here. Someone new might not understand how it works, they come in and throw wild, trying to land something good, they don't get it. What we say is you get what you give, meaning if you come in thinking you're Mike Tyson, and you want to swing for the fences, you're going to get touched up, and nothing settles you down quite like getting punched in the face. You get what you give. Mutual respect. Cooperation not competition. Our efforts on the mats are shared, in other words.
You can feel it, if your partner gets frustrated or mad, you can tell if you need to walk it back a little, if you need to sake a breath. You can read them, and some of it is body language, sure, but it isn't just that. You can feel it, that shared energy, a give and a take, we don't talk about it, but it is real.
What we all know, and never say is this:
Fighting is intimate.
It is about as intimate as anything can be. With a couple of notable exceptions, it is about as close as you are going to get to another person.
At a gym like ours, small and simple (we're a broke-ass fighting gym Coach once said to me), we know each other in a way that other bigger, busier places might not. This is more than a place to learn skills, it becomes like a family. We fight and hurt each other, we lean on each other, we share each other's burdens. We are in each other's faces and spaces all the time; there is no hiding who we are from each other because this shit breaks you down, it humbles you and cracks you open.
These guys aren't just some dudes I work out with, they aren't just a bunch of fighters, they are people that I have grown to love, through blood and sweat and pain, through triumph and failure.
I might have quit that day, panicking on the mat, in the heat and sweat, thinking I am just a broken-ass fat middle-aged bag of shit playacting at being a fighter, and maybe I would have if not for Milton Page and his gentleness, his kindness, his patience and humor, maybe I would have quit, and I wouldn't have these men in my life that I feel are like family, for better and sure, sometimes for worse, maybe my sons wouldn't have kept going if I quit, maybe all we have learned, all the ways we have grown and developed through this place, all the friendships and bruises and exhaustion, the victories and difficulties, maybe all that would have just never happened, and maybe I would have walked away and never have had any of it. But he was there that day and so many days after that, laughing and teaching and smiling and hitting me with that sneaky underhand jab that comes so fast that your head snaps back before you even register that he threw it. He was good, very good, one of the best of us.
What I said last night after I learned that he
I had a chance to text him, but I was on vacation, we were out on the road and there just wasn't the right time. I was driving and busy with family stuff, okay I get that, but fuck man I swear I thought I had more time.
I thought I had more time.
What I said to the guys at the gym on our feed last night was this: I love you, and you are not alone. We will share this too, we will share this and lean on each other and help each other up off the mat when we fall.
He was one of the very best of us, and now he is gone from our lives, except in love and memory, and in the things he taught us.
It is strange how people come into our lives, how they make their mark, and then they leave us behind, wondering what we are going to do now.
Godspeed Milton, my friend, my brother, may we see another once again in the fullness of time.
May we find ourselves standing across from one another sharing the grace and violence of this mad thing we love.
We sometimes say there is no such thing as loss; we win or we learn. And maybe this isn't a loss, maybe not, but man, it sure feels like one today.
Peace to you and your soul, and to those that you leave behind.
Tell the people that you love that you love them. Send that text, reach out, say that thing you have been meaning to say. Right now. Today. Don't wait for a better time, don't wait until later; there may not be a later, and that is something you will carry with you.