How to Be an Ultimate Fighter

“This tube you see coming out of me is directly connected to my heart and pumps liquid into it, tricking my heart into thinking it’s OK.”

I had asked the cab driver what that machine was. I saw the tube sticking out of his side. “Are you OK?”

He looked at me through his mirror for an extra second or two and then started telling me.

The answer was no.

“I need a heart transplant,” he said. And then he explained the tube.

He said, “My heart is three times bigger than the average heart. It can’t get enough oxygen and it’s hard for it to pump blood out to the rest of the body. I can barely move.”

“Jesus,” I said, “how did this happen?”

Even when I asked, I wondered if I cared or if I was just worried this was yet another bad thing that could happen to me.

Does it matter?

The tube that was connected to his heart came out through a hole in his shirt and was attached to a bag in the passenger seat.

Dave, the driver, said, “I wanted to be in the Ultimate Fighting Championships and so I took ephedrine to get my weight down from 215 to 175.”

“What is that,” I asked, “like a steroid?”

“No,” he said, “you could buy it in a GNC.”

“Did you take too much of it?”

“I just took what the bottle said I should take,” Dave said. “Then I started getting this consistent flu so I went to the doctor. I was in great shape. The doctor said I was in impeccable health. That’s the word he used. ‘Impeccable.’” Dave laughed.

“I had to look it up,” he said, “it means perfect. I was muscle on top of muscle. I was ready to fight.”

Then the doctor said, “But I don’t know how to tell you this.”

The doctor said, “I don’t think you’re going to live.”

“I have type II diabetes now. I have high cholesterol. I have high blood pressure. I have a pacemaker on the left side of my heart and this Primacore tube on the right side. I can’t deal with my diabetes because I can’t bring my weight down enough without damaging my heart.”

“What happens if you take that tube out?” I asked.

“Within an hour I’ll feel as if I have a really bad flu,” he said. “And within a month or two I’ll be dead.”

“What if you kept the tube in?” I asked. “How long can you live?”

“I have to take the tube out anyway in three months,” Dave said, “because the body gets too used to it and it doesn’t do any good anymore. So after those three months I have one month to live.

“I have to go to the doctors Friday,” he said, “but they refuse to see me now. Because a heart transplant costs over $2 million and my house is being foreclosed on. I have no money and even if I got a transplant I can’t afford the anti-rejection pills that you have to take for the rest of your life to make sure the body accepts the new heart.”

We were making our way over the George Washington bridge. The traffic and heat and sun and police blocks, confusing corners, bridges were all slowing us down.

“This is depressing,” he said. “Let’s talk about something else.”

“Were you good at fighting?” I asked. “When was the last fight you were in?”

“Ever since I was 7, I just loved putting my fist in someone’s face. If someone hurt me, it was a guarantee I was going to hurt them harder. But I’m not like that anymore. Now I’m just grateful every second to be alive.”

He said, “A few weeks ago I was at a bar with my friend. I had the tube tucked away in what I was wearing. Some guys started bothering my friend who was talking to a cute girl. So I asked them to stop. They started to get closer to me and I was moving back. They were huge and juiced up and I didn’t know what was going to happen.

“To be honest, I should’ve left them alone because if they ripped this tube out I would have been in serious trouble. This tube is connected right into my heart. But I poked the main guy in the eye really hard. I just jabbed right in the center of the eye.”

He looked at me through the rear view mirror. “What would you do if someone jabbed you in the eye?” he asked.

“I guess I would probably cry,” I said.

“No,” he said, “you’d put your hands on your eyes and you’d bend forward. That’s what everyone does.

“Then, while the guy was bent forward, I hit at his Adam’s apple on his throat. I just did it lightly. If I had done it stronger I would’ve broken his windpipe. He was down on the ground and the bouncer threw him out. The whole thing took five seconds.”

“How’d you learn to do that?”

“I’ve just been doing it all my life. When I was younger I studied boxing and all the martial arts. That’s why I wanted to do ultimate fighting. But now I can’t. Now I can’t even go grocery shopping. I have to pay some kids to help me out.”

We were weaving in and out of lanes on the West Side highway. I kept trying to think of solutions for him but my brain was empty and the sun was about to go down.

“I’ve been dead twice,” he said. “And then I would wake up with doctors and nurses all around me and no memory of how I got there.”

“I’m just so happy,” he said. “I’m so happy to be alive.”

“I’ve got a 16-year-old kid,” Dave said. “I hope he’s a success in life. That’s all I want. I didn’t really know my dad. He was murdered when I was 5.”

“What happened?” I said.

“I don’t know,” he said. “He wasn’t living with us no more. So my mom and I went over to his house and all I remember is that there was blood everywhere. I remember that he had dark hair. Sometimes I look up at the sky and I hope he can hear me talking to him.”

“And now,” he said, “all I want is to see my son graduate. He graduates in 12 months.”

We were almost home. We were quiet for a block or two.

“I hope everyone is wrong about my four or five months left to live. But right now this second, I am so grateful and happy to be here, to be alive, to be talking to you.”

“What keeps you so optimistic?” I said.

“All of us here,” he said, “are going to die. There’s no exception. We are all going to die. So you have two choices. You can die crying or you can die smiling. I’m going to die smiling.”

We got a little lost thanks to my inability to ever give good directions. Finally we got to my destination.

“Well,” he said, as I was getting out of the car, “I’m going to beat this thing, James. I’m going to come back when nobody said I could and I’m going to beat this thing and get my health back.”

“I know you are, Dave. I really think you are.”

But, in truth, I didn’t.

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