No, this is not sad, it occurs to me. This is a man whose hands once worked as quickly and efficiently as human hands have ever worked. A man who will make do with this trembling flesh and bone that now hang from his wrists. A man of dignity and strength.
To be vulnerable, and yet never embarrassed—this is the gift of the child. How has he preserved that after all he has seen and experienced, after decades of watching every person—every person—who walks by him freeze and mouth the word Ali, after decades of watching people try to seduce or exploit him? How is it that Muhammad Ali can still giggle?
I see myself in his bathroom. It's 1987. I'm trying to get out, pushing and pulling at the door, turning the knob left and right, thinking I have somehow locked myself in, sweating and self-conscious...when suddenly the door opens, my momentum carries me flying into his living room, and Ali steps out from behind the door, grinning.
"Just teasin'," he says.
Oh, yes, he knows the butterfly's secret. Knows it and doesn't even know he knows it. In order to transform himself, a man must first be able to lose, able to keep letting his old self die. Part of such a man will never grow old.
I think of him sitting in a Manila hotel room in 1975 with Peter Bonventre, then a writer with Newsweek, and a second man, a Filipino whom Ali has just met. The stranger speaks in flowery words with a British lilt, then unrolls a parchment full of gaudy colors and script and extends a pen for Ali to sign it with. Ali, who was once bilked out of $2.4 million by one man, who paid for another man to bury his mother twice—who would shrug and say, "He must have really needed it," when he learned of the deceit—takes the Filipino's pen without hesitation, signs and looks up. "It's beautiful writing," Ali says. "What did I just sign?"
The man bows slowly. "You are now," he says, "the godfather of my three children."
And Ali, his smile wide, his eyes wide, says what my little girl might say, what I wish I would say: "Really?"
He had the vision of a child—and, yes, the blindness, too. The short attention span—you had 15 seconds to say or do something of interest to Ali before his eyes moved elsewhere, his bodyguard Pat Patterson once said. The need for two scoops of vanilla ice cream on his apple pie every day. The cruel streak that permitted him to introduce Veronica as his wife in Manila when the title was still Belinda's. We came to overlook those things. In a country where children are no longer children, could a beautiful child like Ali fail to be a god?
But now I see other eyes. Weary eyes, life-beaten. A child who saw and did too much. It is 10 minutes after he leaned on the door and trapped me in the bathroom. It is winter in Michigan. He steps out onto his farm and stares across the barren earth. I lean to make out each word he speaks: "I can sit here all day and the phone don't ring...no knock on the door...no visitors. Can take a walk...a jog...a swim...and see no one. Peace...total peace.... Nothin' excite me no more. Big-city lights...big cars...big houses...pretty women.... Used to be I couldn't go two hours without people. Now I can sit all day alone. I like it just like this."