Mortality Play

The pain is always there. It’s bad when he sits down and worse when he stands up and worst of all when he lies down. During the days, he oscillates back and forth between perching stiffly on the couch and awkwardly pacing the floor. During the nights, he passes sleepless hours stretching and contorting his body this way and that, looking for a comfortable position that doesn’t exist. None of the painkillers make any difference, not even the T3s they gave him for his shoulder, which are usually enough to chase any ache for a couple of hours. Nothing drives away this pain, though. It’s always there.

A hamstring pull, the doctor says, but he’s not sure. Like so many pains, it doesn’t conform exactly to the textbook definition, doesn’t seem to start exactly where it ought to, doesn’t respond exactly the way you’d think. He’s tried pills and he’s tried massages and he’s tried exercises and now he’s trying electro-acupuncture, long needles buzzing deep in the tissue, trying to tense or release something twisted far beneath the layers of skin and fat and muscle. It’s close to the bone, this pain, dug way down into the nerves. He hopes it’s nothing more than a pull.

Whatever the cause, the doctor is sure of one thing: no hockey. Absolutely no hockey. Not until it’s better. When will it be better? The doctor doesn’t know. One day at a time. One treatment at a time. No sooner than mid-January. Possibly later.

To his ears, mid-January might as well be mid-forever. This is the season of hockey. Even in Toronto, there are only a precious few months of the year when ice is so cheap and plentiful. Healthy, he would be playing two, three, maybe even four times a week. Outside on long winter nights with beer on the bench and snowflakes sparking against the sky, inside old arenas that smell like fetid sweat and harsh cleansers, sometimes even under the venerable old beams of Maple Leaf Gardens. For a quarter of the year, maybe a little more, a person can find as much hockey as they have time to fill. That quarter is half-gone now, and he hasn’t even been to the outdoor rinks. During those long, restless nights, squeezing his burning leg, he fears he’ll never get there.

I had to retire, his uncle says, somewhere in between the turkey and the pie, when a holiday dinner fragments into desultory conversations between long-distant relations. My hip, it’s done. Just can’t take anymore. The room is full of men who used to play and can’t any longer. He gets up, stretches the muscle, winces visibly, and looking around, sees his future.

We give some time over to grief for the injuries that end professional careers. Not much- we’re always more interested in the people who can play than those who can’t- but some. We mourn, perfunctorily, the post-concussion symptoms and seized-up knees of our NHL heroes, but one doesn’t see a lot of lamentation for the injuries that do in ordinary players. Obviously, rightly perhaps. Ordinary players aren’t good, and anyway, it’s not like hockey is their livelihood. It’s not feeding their children or putting the roof over their heads. But really, that last loss- the loss not of a career but the loss of the ability to play altogether- is both more universal and sadder than any simple retirement. It comes to the great players and the crappy alike, and seldom with a conference or an ovation. The last time an ordinary person plays hockey, they probably don’t even realize it’s the last time, and when the revelation comes, it comes in solitude and silence, with only a distracted spouse or sympathetic friend to bear witness. It’s done. I just can’t take anymore.

This mystery pull probably won’t be the injury that ends hockey for him. There have been others before- a broken foot, tendonitis in an elbow, dozens of different sprains- and all of them eventually passed. This too shall pass, he knows, he hopes. He’s not old. His capacity for healing is hardly exhausted. Enough pins, enough jolts, enough time, and he’ll be on the ice again. Next season, if not this one.

But maybe, now, for the first time, he understands that the number of next seasons is finite. They can be counted, hopefully not on his fingers and toes but probably on both of ours put together. Over the course of a lifetime, the pain only goes one way. Up. More. The injuries mass and swarm, grow in number, intensity, and duration. No one is stronger or faster at forty than they were at twenty, and save a few especially sickly infants, no one gets healthier with time. His body, right now, is falling apart. One day something will hurt and the doctor won’t say sprain, pull.  They’ll say arthritis, surgery.  The only question is how long the process will take.

Eventually, someday, it will be too much.

There will come a day of no more hockey.

That day comes to everyone, and it’s terrifying, the way only things that contain a taste of mortality can be terrifying. Because what is our ever-increasing physical decrepitude but evidence of death creeping into our bodies? We read our end not in the passage of time itself, but in the irrevocable loss of our ability to do things. I can’t touch my toes anymore.  I can’t sit on the floor with the kids.  I can’t play.  All of these little losses foreshadow the great loss, when we will lie, useless and inert, unable to do anything ever again.

On Christmas Eve, we go to church. We light candles in the dark and sing hymns about the immortal soul and the eternal kingdom. We give thanks for deliverance from pain and victory over death, but just as sure as he feels his leg screaming on the hard wooden pews, we know that death is still coming. Whatever redemption faith offers, it is something distant and airy, something far away beyond our measuring or reckoning. Wherever our souls go, our bodies will do nothing but dissolve into the ground.

What is eternal life without a body? Our bodies are the things that live. We experience what we call “living” through them. What is it to be alive while taking up no space?  What is a life without breath, without warmth, without motion?  Is it even worthy of the name?  Is it even worth having?

Lots of philosophers in lots of armchairs have written lots of words about why humans have sports, probably because there are lots of reasons for the phenomenon. One of the best is that, other than sex, they offer the greatest joy you can possibly take in having a living body. Baseball, rugby, tennis, bowling, pick your poison- the glory of them is the rush of physical being. And hockey, especially, is a suck-the-marrow-out-of-life game. It’s immediate and visceral. It takes place in the fractions of seconds between shots and saves, in the fractions of milliseconds between perception and reaction. Of all the sports, it sits at the highest apex of pure physicality, played so fast that it often transcends conscious thought, analysis, and intention.  It is where we test the utmost limit of what a body can do, and marvel at the results.  You are never more fully your body than in the middle of a puck battle. But any game will leave you just a little bit more alive than you would have been if you’d never played.

The moment we give up our games, we take an enormous step closer to the grave.

I don’t know anything about bloodless world to come, where it is or what it’s like or if it even exists. I’ve heard a lot of stories and a lot of theories, but death is like infinity: impossible to understand and impossible to see beyond. But this much I know: this world is beautiful. This mucky, messy, crazy place we live is nothing more or less than a great collection of minor miracles, not least of which are the arc of a ball through the air, the smell of grass churned up by cleats, the layered hissing and growling of ten pairs of skates on a sheet of clean ice. Air ripping out of lungs and sweat pouring down backs and muscles running hot with urgency, blood welling up purple under the skin. There are lots of ways to be alive, but none so easy, lucky, or free as playing. A world that gives us such opportunities to be is a world with no need of heaven.

Except that our time in it is not nearly long enough.

Use your body. Before it’s gone.