Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
I’ve always dug that Dylan Thomas ditty. The imagery and lyrical cadence are undeniably pleasing, and on the surface, even when I first heard the poem as a teenager, I knew it was heavy stuff. Still, back then I didn’t fully understand its gravity — its true weight.
No surprise there. How could any PlayStation-addled moron from the Midwest, one so utterly untouched by life or real loss, understand what some Welsh cat born eight decades earlier was working himself into a lather over? I remember sitting in a dusty, old red-brick box, sticky from the late-spring stuffiness, when we reviewed Thomas and his works. I remember it being a late-afternoon class and, as usual, having blown off the better part of a good night’s sleep. And yet, I remember, I sprung up the steps to that third-floor classroom and, later that night, hustled off to the gym to get some run in for a couple of hours.
Oddly, the Thomas poem, and that day in “English Lit: Poetry 101,” were a couple of the first scattered thoughts that entered my mind tonight, shortly after my good friend snapped his right ankle like dried kindling.
He and I were hooping in an adult league at the local Y, and things were going alarmingly well. A motley collection of beer drinkers (me), recovering drug dabblers and calcified former high school ballers, we had lost our first handful of games but managed to split our previous four. And on this night, after distancing ourselves from a knotted halftime score to take a 17-point lead — undoubtedly our biggest of the season — swag had become a factor.
“Hey, it’s nice to be able to go 80 percent and be up big for once,” my buddy said, all but winking, after one of our runs forced the other bench to call a timeout.
He might as well have been taunting the basketball gods.
Ninety seconds later, he was crumpled on the floor in a moaning heap. Rather than bounding over to help yank him up, everyone on the floor took a half-step back. My buddy’s foot had turned at a gruesome angle. The severity of the injury was obvious, and one of our teammates — who later told me he had broken his own ankle years before — couldn’t even bring himself to go near the scene. On a scale of mild rec-league sprain (1) to wiggly, Theismann-esque break (10), this thing was a solid 8.
An ambulance was called. My buddy half-jokingly murmured something about a “$6,000 ride to the hospital.” Long wait for the EMTs. Meantime, a gaggle of amateur ER docs diagnosed the injury as a dislocation. Regardless, it would likely cost my buddy a massive sum and, unless he could get back on his feet in a hurry, a fat work contract that would have made his year.
I’ve lately thought a lot — probably too much, and selfishly — about the ravages of age. I envy those who can face up to it, shrug and go on about their business. I can’t. I’m a stone-cold sucker. I cling to all my days of running, jumping, starting, stopping, planting, crouching, diving — all of it pain-free — and waking up the next day to do it all over again without a thought. I was never much of an athlete — just someone who liked to move and could call on his body to do wonderful things, even within the parameters of his own physical limitations.
Today? I’m almost 40. My hips ache. My knees feel like hollow grapefruits. My Achilles — dear god, my Achilles! — screams at me daily, with every step. If it’s attached to me, it’s stiff. And probably sore. And, quite possibly, in need of significant medical attention.
Then again, all of my moving parts are still, more or less, fully operational. I played well tonight, was able to get out of my own head after showing up late to the game and, in my rush to get ready, forgot how awful I am compared to my former self. I didn’t have time to think, or worry, or remember. I just ambled out there and … played.
I don’t know if I was raging, exactly, but I’ve always said that I’d play until the wheels fell off — even while the tread was already bare and the axels broken. So this felt like a legitimate triumph against an unseen, ruthless force.
Within minutes, though, my buddy was writhing on the floor. As the wait for the ambulance dragged on, a portly referee sidled up to me. “Dammit,” he whispered, “I hate to see that happen to anybody.”
My buddy is 37 years old and, once a truly great high school player and still a fine athlete, is facing the prospect of never playing basketball again. I’m sick for him right now. Fuck age. Fuck old. Get better, Matt. Burn and rave, brother.