The crowd booed loudly as The Undertaker walked down the entrance ramp of the Spectrum in Philadelphia in 1992. Led in the ring by the equally pale and slightly more unnerving Paul Bearer, Undertaker set his sights for the ring, ominously sizing up his opponent. I felt the warmth of the stadium dissipate, giving way to a cold that ran up my spine, or so I had thought I’d felt. I sat with my eyes wide open under the bent brim of my Seattle Mariners hat, mesmerized by this gigantic and, apparently undead, man walking slowly and methodically towards the ring. I had no idea what “kayfabe” meant as a squirmy, semi-hyperactive seven year old. I just knew this thing was the scariest thing I’d ever seen, and my attention was completely focused on him. I was so entranced in his entrance, I couldn’t hear the roar of the crowd as he entered the ring to lock eyes with his opponent, the equally sinister Papa Shango. I was captivated by the energy, the pageantry, the excitement of a WWE (then WWF) live event, and The Undertaker captured all of that by himself.
That day at the Spectrum, my very first live event, was a wonderful touchstone in a lifelong fanaticism with professional wrestling. My brothers and I spent hours acting out all of our favorite promos from the Ultimate Warrior, belting out the theme songs of our favorite Superstars, and became deeply distressed at any sign of Hulk Hogan losing the upper hand. Saturday mornings were sacred, the squared circle our church, and the Superstars our Biblical figures, with their storylines as revered as the stories of Moses and Abraham. I can’t think of my childhood without the thought of the WWE in my mind. My brothers and I agonized over which Superstar would win the Royal Rumble and who, if anyone, would beat the Undertaker at WrestleMania. WWE had grown with us, with Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage giving way to Bret Hart and Shawn Michaels, then giving way to The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin. Each year that passed brought a new storyline to become deeply involved with, new drama to be captivated by, a new WrestleMania to wait for.
We couldn’t have known then the impact The Undertaker would have on professional wrestling and a generation of children, including the wide eyed, brown haired little boy in the nosebleed section of the Spectrum that day in 1992. His storied career has spanned more than three decades, the majority of that time as “The Deadman”. We watched him slay giants, be buried alive, become one of the darkest villains in the history of sports entertainment, transform into the American Bad Ass, and then take his rightful throne as the real “Mr. WrestleMania” (sorry, Shawn Michaels, but you know it’s true). His final match, the cinematic “Boneyard Match” with AJ Styles on night one of WrestleMania 36, was the capstone to an illustrious career. The match was derived out of necessity, due to the cancellation of all live sporting events during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and gave The Undertaker the ability to end his career in a less physical environment. His last few in ring matches left a lot to be desired, with one so heavily panned and so damaging to both opponents, it nearly killed them both. Suffice to say, The Boneyard Match represented a closing moment for me, and so many latchkey kids like me. Another piece of my childhood is gone, and I’m not so sure I’m ready to watch any more heroes ride into the sunset.
Life is funny sometimes. Some days bring reminders of good moments in your life. The smell of freshly brewed coffee brings you right back to the afternoons you spent swimming in your Uncle Lon’s pool, while he enjoyed his Marlboro Lights and black coffee in the covered porch of his Levittown home. A crack of a baseball bat connecting with a 98 miles per hour pitch sends you back to a hazy summer afternoon spent in the nosebleed seats at Veterans Stadium with your brothers, dad, and favorite perpetual teenager, Uncle Rick. Even something like the smell of lotion sends you to the summer of your first vacation crush when you went to Cape May Courthouse with your mom and brothers, and the impending heartbreak that comes with saying goodbye when the trip is over. While her name has been eternally lost in translation between your short and long term memories, you can see her brown hair blowing in the wind as you dug your toes in the sand together, and you can hear her laugh at the terrible joke you told her seconds before she kissed you. I can’t even tell you the last time I rode a bike, but when that freshly cut grass smell hits my nose on a beautiful spring morning, I can feel the wind on my face as I race my friends through the neighborhood before another lazy day playing outside in the backyard. Wonderful, amazing moments that push the course of your life in new, exciting directions, and these life receipts are tangible reminders of your past.
Other days bring grim reminders of your inevitable mortality, and the unstoppable aging process that precedes our irreversible fate. Those reminders perpetually yield an absolute sadness, a melancholy that lingers over my daily routine like an obnoxious itch on your leg after a mosquito bite. It’s like a bitter aftertaste from a terrible drink your brother swore was delicious, and you knew better than to trust him on his decision making because he’s done this shit to you before, but you drank it anyway, and no amount of water will dilute its foul remnants burning a hole through your tongue. No one and no actual thing prepares you for each loss you experience in life, nor do they provide a buffer from the successive losses of your childhood that accompany each passing year. There’s no guide to prepare for the first major loss in your life, as Uncle Lon slips away from cancer. The life lessons and tough skin Uncle Lon’s passing brought most certainly did not prepare you for the loss of Uncle Rick, also from cancer. Although you were older when Uncle Rick got sick, and you “convinced” yourself you could handle it because you knew it was coming, that the inevitability of his passing was sealed in his book of life, you’d literally give anything to sit with him and talk baseball for at least another five minutes. There’s a profound shock that comes over you as you see these titans of your formative years lose their battle with the beast. Invincible figures, individuals you picture being alive with you forever, suddenly become fragile, jaundiced, sick... mortal. You lose close friends, and each loss never gets easier, as if I’m expecting the sudden, unexpected, and mentally devastating passing of Scott Palek to somehow cushion me from the air constricting, guttural sadness I felt when I learned Jeremy Fischer passed away. Seventy pounds gained and twice a day anxiety medicine told me that I wasn’t prepared at all. I didn’t want any of this - I didn’t fucking sign up for this. It’s a ride we only get off of when our cards are punched, the last stop on the train of life, barreling a hundred miles per hour through the universe with the brake lines cut. Time’s up, kid. Last stop, eternity.
WrestleMania 36 brought one more reminder of this non stop train we live on, and although it wasn’t nearly as devastating as actual loss, it still conjured the feelings of mourning of a time that’s passed. I remember speaking to my wife a few days before WrestleMania 36, prior to the cancellation of the public event, and saying, “I can’t believe Taker’s wrestling again. I don’t know how much more his body can take. He’s getting older, and I’m afraid he’s going to get hurt. I wonder if he’s actually going to hang it up this time.” I said these things, not at all expecting him to actually hang it up. I had the same thoughts about Goldberg, Sting, and other titans of professional wrestling coming back for one more round. Like Goldberg and Sting, The Undertaker owes us no more than he’s already given us. He’s entertained me, my brothers, and legions of fans across multiple decades, putting his body and safety on the line in death defying, jaw dropping, heart pounding fashions, each and every time. I, like so many others, plead for more entertainment, more excitement, more action. In reality, we’re pleading for a return to a time that doesn’t exist anymore. We project these fleeting wishes, these last sparking embers of the past, onto The Undertaker, a man who represents the last tangible piece of those times.
The Undertaker hasn’t transitioned like Robin Williams, The Ultimate Warrior, Chris Farley, Ryan Dunn, and countless other people, places, and things that no longer exist but in my memory. The idea of the character, his aura, and what he represents, now exists only in memory. The Undertaker was one of the last tangible pieces of my childhood that existed and, just like that, is gone before I even have a chance to say goodbye. I remember that day so clearly in the Spectrum, and become lost again as a child, discussing with my brothers whether or not he was really dead, and what was really in that urn.
Perhaps we all remain children in some way mentally throughout our lives. I certainly don’t feel 35. What exactly is it to feel your age? Is it a mindset? Is it a complete dismissal of things that you once enjoyed? I still collect action figures and comic books, does this make me less adult? I often view myself in moments of anger or sadness as the same shy, quirky seven year old with the bent brimmed Mariners hat, desperately seeking validation and acceptance, hoping someone loves him. I’m the hurt little boy, embarrassed about being yelled at for getting too excitable again, reaching for his dad. I can feel my dad running his rough, dry hands through my hair as I cry into his shoulder, trying to understand why I felt so big and why I had to be this way. He’d just sit and reassure me that I was perfect just the way I was, and that it was perfectly okay for boys to feel feelings.
As I turn the calendar of another year of life, I find myself a year older, and another year as a father. I’ve shifted the life roles from child to father, comforting my own son in the same way my dad comforted me. “These are big feelings, buddy. It’s okay to feel them the way you do. I understand, and I love you just the way you are.” My father has become the wise, gray elder, passing wisdom and guidance on days where I can’t imagine my children acting any worse, with a gentle reminder that days like today don’t ever come back, and the best way to view life was to just breathe and enjoy the ride. I snap back into the moment, looking towards three sets of little eyes above chocolate covered cheeks, and then repeating the soundtrack to Frozen 2 to hear the sweet singing voice of my youngest serenade me one more time.
The seven year old boy is crying quietly. His arms are crossed on the railing at the Spectrum, pulling his bent brimmed hat over his face to hide the tears streaming down his face, as another one of his heroes, and another, perhaps final, piece of his childhood makes the inevitable transition from present to past. As The Undertaker walks down the aisle and through the curtain for the last time, he takes his place with Uncle Lon, Uncle Rick, lost loves at the beach, and infinite life receipts, to peek out from time to time to remind us of who we are, the roads we’ve traveled, and where we’re headed next. But the shy little boy in the nosebleed section is desperate for one last ride, one last match, one last moment in the sun before his childhood is gone forever.
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