Dignity in Disease

Some years ago, I was working for a church and had to visit several old people once a week to help them with their daily life. The old woman I saw on Wednesday afternoons had some incurable disease - she never mentioned exactly what it was, but did not miss an opportunity to complain about the hardship she had to endure and the pain she suffered from day after day. Not a Wednesday passed without her telling me that no one cared for her and that she did not want to live any more. This always made me uneasy and I wondered if I would feel the same way if I fell seriously ill one day. Two years ago, however, I learned that there is another way of dealing with a painful and incurable disease.

I was born in 1983. Back then, Muhammad Ali had already quit his career as a professional boxer and Parkinson's syndrome had taken over his life. This untreatable nervous disorder severely slows one's movements and slurs one's speech. In 1998, my dad raised my interest in Ali by purchasing a videotape with two Ali fights. They could not have been more different from one another. The first one is shot in black and white and shows the young Ali - then still Cassius Clay - winning merely with his reflexes and lightning-fast combinations. The second encounter on the videotape took place ten years later, in 1974. This was the bout where Muhammad Ali misled the whole world. For eight rounds he was leaning back against the ropes, taking blow after blow from George Foreman, the colossal muscle-man he faced. It is hard, almost impossible, to try and think of the amount of pain Ali had to endure during that hot night in Africa. Yet his face signaled that nothing in the world could hurt him. In the end, suffering prevailed over brutality, and after more than half an hour of being beaten on literally every part of the body, Ali knocked out the startled Foreman.

Almost thirty years after the Ali vs. Foreman encounter, I had the once-in-a-lifetime chance to meet Ali myself when he visited Germany. When I saw him try and get out of his limousine, it broke my heart. It seemed that it took him more than five minutes before he was finally standing in front of all the people, his arms shaking, his eyes almost entirely closed from fatigue. Very slowly, he made his way through the crowd into the arena where he was presented on stage with the German boxer Karl Mildenberger, who used to be one of his opponents. After the usual questions and answers, some one jokingly proposed that the two should have a rematch. Ali turned to life at these very words. He opened his eyes, glanced at Mildenberger and started charging towards him. The surprised German raised his fists for protection. All of a sudden, the young Ali was on stage. Moving with incredible speed, his fists jumping towards his foe's face, his feet suggesting the famous Ali shuffle, it seemed as if he had told the limiting disease that it had to step back for the moment. The crowd was giving him a standing ovation. I am sure I was not the only one who fought the tears.

The next day, I was driving home and thought about the incredible event I had witnessed. Once again, Ali had misled everyone by pretending everything was alright when indeed he was a very sick man. Had the man not every right in the world to show his sufferings and receive the people's pity? Instead, he chose not to let Parkinson's steal his life and people's happiness. He chose to shut up the disease within his body, as if to prevent people from even knowing about it. How much strength must one have to deal with a sickness that fierce and severe with such dignity and pride? I promised myself that, if I would ever be seriously ill, to try and deal with it the same way. At the same moment, I knew that I would not have the strength.

Johannes Ehrmann