Parkinson’s is a progressive disorder of the nervous system, an unwanted gift that keeps on taking: balance, movement, coordination, vocalization, even sense of smell—a friend who has M.S. refers to us as “neuro-degenerates.” As a bonus, P.D. may also affect emotions and cognitive ability, triggering depression and hallucinations. Folks pay good money to hallucinate; I get it for free.
When I box, though, Parkinson’s disease has no purchase on my reptile brain. We all answer the bell in our own time. I arrive at the gym early, taking a seat on one of the benches near the window, where my first challenge awaits: wrapping my hands and wrists to buttress them against injury. Some boxers have mastered the origami of swaddling one’s hands with a yards-long wrap of woven cotton. My incentive was a pang of shame in asking a trainer to assist; too much like someone tying my shoes. I roll the wrap three times around my wrist, then in between fingers, back around the wrist, and several turns over my knuckles.
After some warm-up exercises—jumping jacks, toe taps, squats—we shadowbox for a bit. Clenched fists thrown into the air; a pantomime of combativeness. Today, eight of us are scattered amid a thicket of 100-pound heavy bags that hang like hogs in a slaughterhouse. “Glove up!” barks our trainer—a Pavlovian jolt to my pulse. I pull on black-and-white 12-ounce boxing gloves and start the drill. Jab, cross, lead uppercut, rear hook. “Repeat,” says the trainer. We respond as best we can. We are game, for sure, and yet our bodies defy direction and our gloves sometimes flail or greet the bag with a cousin’s kiss.
The bag, shredded fabric wrapped around a core of sand, is a provocation. It embodies nearly seven years of fear, night terrors, frustration—and, yes, anger—that never take a break, never hear the bell. I hit the bag as hard as I can, my knuckles stinging despite the protective wrap as the trainer switches commands from rhythm to speed to power. The thud-thwap issuing from the bag soothes me. All the worry, the “Why me?,” flies from my fists.
Staying Off the Ropes
An avid cyclist, I inexplicably began to have the wobbles. I consulted a neurologist, who said I was exhibiting “idiopathic Parkinsonian symptoms.” Translation: You have P.D.; we have no clue what caused it. We discussed exercise, and boxing was recommended for improving balance, muscle strength, and movement. The “sweet science,” as an English journalist once called it, can slow P.D.’s inexorable march. “And it’s fun,” said the brain doc, using a word I’d never associated with Parkinson’s.
I’d last put on gloves as a teenager at summer camp when, my mouth bloodied by a blow that caused my braces to split my lip like a blown tire, I went Raging Bull and windmilled my opponent to the canvas before the ref could use my oozing gob as grounds to stop the fight.
Rage drives me now, as I box in a special P.D. class at a nearby club. I want the bag to moan when I strike. My technique is improving, so when the trainer complimented my hooks as good—not just P.D. good—I felt positively Tyson-esque.
Though, this was all B.C. (Before the Coronavirus). Now the pandemic has knocked the club out of commission, and robbed me both of facility and the fellowship of the other N-Ds. In my cellar, I’ve enwrapped a steel pillar with a dog bed and some pillows to simulate a heavy bag. I Zoom some video workouts. Who knows when the shit will hit my personal fan and my punches will no longer land? Until then, I will throw jabs and crosses and hooks at a relentless foe. Boxing, for me, is hope.
Steve Goldstein is a writer living in Maryland