One would never know to look at me now that, from 1992 through 2004, in a gym that I set up in a large storage room in the apartment building where I lived, friends and I ran a very informal amateur MMA club. Ranging in age from twenties through fifties, all twenty to thirty of us were former wrestlers and/or boxers who had turned to the somewhat new, rougher sport of mixed martial arts.
Some of us had had formal MMA training (a few had even trained with the Gracie family); most of us were just eager self-taught competitors. We all learned moves and techniques from each other and then spent months perfecting them on each other and on non-regulars who occasionally came to the sessions.
I can’t remember many other afternoons in my life that were nearly as much fun as our twice-monthly sessions of training and fighting.
Weighing only 130–135 pounds, I was always considerably smaller than all but just a few of the other fighters. But even against guys who outweighed me by twenty or thirty pounds, I had a reputation as a tenacious, hard-to-beat fighter, primarily because it was damn near impossible to force me to submit. The other guy often got tired and frustrated with my ability to absorb punishment and never submit. That’s how I beat most of them.
Surrender was simply not a choice I could make.
“No retreat, no surrender,” as Springsteen and so many others have said.
My wrestling and fighting hobby screeched to a halt one Sunday morning in June 2004 when I fell on the sidewalk and sprawled out into the street. That fall ripped up the cartilage in my left knee and herniated three discs in my lower back, all of which required surgeries. I was fifty-two years old at the time. It was that fall that began the slow age-related, HIV-aggravated deterioration of my health—spinal fractures, loss of muscle mass, osteoporosis, a fight with appendiceal cancer, and other debilitating and humiliating ailments that I’ve chronicled here before.
And now, a debilitating fall has led me to re-evaluate what it means to “surrender.”
On October 24, 2018, because I have lost all strength in my legs and they sporadically simply wobble around and stop working, I fell on the tile steps in our apartment, landing on my right shoulder and forehead. Somehow, as I fell, I managed to sprain my pelvis, making any/every movement excruciatingly painful—a helluva lot more pain than from any punch I ever took.
When the emergency room doctors at Kaiser told me that I would have to be transferred to a nursing/rehab facility for at least two weeks of therapy, I balked. I fought. Just as I had resisted confinement to a wheelchair until last April, I resisted going to a nursing/rehab facility because it too represented giving up, admitting that the virus is winning. It represented “surrender.”
Well, I’m writing this from a bed in that nursing/rehab facility. Yes, it feels like I simply surrendered in exhaustion, just as innumerable long-term survivors have done when surrender became the only choice.
When I leave this facility in a few days, there are other things that I have put off facing, things that I resisted, refused to surrender to, but now have no choice. Things such as my now requiring in-home non-medical help during some days while my fiancé Rick is at work or confining myself to two rooms in the apartment because I cannot even contemplate navigating the stairs by myself. Giving up cooking because I cannot get up the stairs to the kitchen. Sleeping alone, in a recliner chair, because I cannot climb the stairs to the bedroom. Using a hospital-grade potty because the bathroom is also at the top of stairs.
Each of those changes feels like a blind-side sucker punch from the virus.
So here it is—I can recognize inevitable defeat in a battle with a nasty opponent, and so I know that I simply cannot win a fight against these “new normal” changes in my life. In each of those instances, I have no real-world choice but to surrender to conditions I cannot change. Round One: the virus.
Surrender, though, is not retreat. I’m not out of this fight just yet. I’m not ready for that last surrender.
Hank Trout, Editor at Large, edited Drummer, Malebox, and Folsom magazines in the early 1980s. A long-term survivor of HIV/AIDS (diagnosed in 1989), he is a thirty-eight-year resident of San Francisco, where he lives with his fiancé Rick. Follow him on Twitter @HankTroutWriter.