The Pugilist

I was four or five years old, and my dad had just finished a boxing workout in the basement. He was making his way upstairs, all sweaty and tired out. His favourite Tom Jones record was playing, leaking into the hallway from inside the gym. I couldn’t understand why he would voluntarily put himself through such gruelling training, so I asked him.

“I have to stay strong and in shape, so I can protect my daughters,” he replied.

“From what?” I asked.

He leaned on the stair banister, catching his breath. “Well, when you get older, you’ll start spending more time with boys, and later on, you’ll want to bring them home to meet your dad,” he winked. “Every time you bring a boy home, I’ll invite him down to the basement for a boxing match with me, and you’ll have to wait upstairs.” I nodded and listened closely. “When we’re done, your dad will return from the basement victorious, not the boy you brought over. Your dad will always win, because your dad is bigger and stronger than all the boys.” I giggled, because my dad was always bragging about how big and strong he was. “But one day, it’ll be different, Paulina. One day your dad won’t come out of the basement first, and the boy will instead. I’ll have to give you up to one of them eventually, and it’ll be the one who can defeat your daddy.”

When he told me this, I screamed, “No!!!” and cried. I couldn’t imagine seeing someone hurt my dad, and I especially couldn’t imagine having to spend the rest of my life with that person.

Throughout his 20’s and 30’s, my dad was a professional boxer. I grew up hearing all kinds of stories over and over again; he was one of Muhammad Ali’s sparring partners at his training camp in Pennsylvania, he was known as Milan “Left Hook” Hrebacka, or “Milan the Man.” My dad has many photos of his younger self hanging on the walls of his gym. Some are of him and Muhammad Ali, some are of him teaching boxing, and some are of him training at Beaver Boxing Club in Ottawa. My dad’s boxing career ended before I was born, but his mind has never left it.

Aside from boxing, my dad was also a document holder, otherwise considered a body guard, for Pierre Elliot Trudeau. It sounds pretty badass, but he’s admitted that the job usually required him to babysit Trudeau’s kids; Justin, Alexandre and Michel. Naturally, my dad ended up teaching the boys how to fight. As a young man, he worked as a doorman in various bars around Ottawa. He has plenty of scars on the back of his head, neck and face, allegedly from chairs and bottles being broken over him. He shows them off like trophies, with a different story for each one.

My dad’s always been passionate about boxing, weightlifting, and sports in general. He’d always wanted a son, but was given three daughters instead. He taught us how to fight properly, and let me tell you – he wasn’t any easier on us just because we’re girls. When I got bullied at school, he told me to “always hit back.” I used to get into fights with boys on the playground, and in grade one I broke a boy’s nose. I was so happy because I knew my dad would be proud of me. I remember sitting in the principal’s office with my parents as my dad tried to explain that I needed to know how to defend myself. He taught boxing lessons to my elementary school gym class and coached my high school track & field team. A lot of my friends looked up to him, and I was always so proud to show him off. My dad was my hero.

II

I was six years old when my parents divorced, and my mom won custody of me and my sisters. We moved from Ottawa to Kemptville, and lived in a small blue and white house on the main street. My mom, Diana, was an amazing single mother. It was tough though, because she was just a freelance writer at the time. She’s one of the main reasons why I write. My dad started seeing my stepmother, who has two kids of her own. My sisters and I visited my dad and his “new family” regularly, usually spending the weekends, until both of my sisters decided to move in with him. They missed living in the city. Eventually, my mother began to date again and I felt lonely without my siblings, so I moved in with my dad, too.

From that point on, my childhood was pretty much over. There were five of us kids all under one roof, and being the youngest, I was picked on a lot. I never felt like a kid again after my parents split up. I realized that everyone in my family was drifting off on their own. We were all individual people now, trying to cope with the same situation. It was like we each needed to slip away, into ourselves, to hibernate for a while. It was a difficult thing for a child to understand.

I remember my first-grade teacher telling me, “Just remember that both of your parents love you very much, no matter what happens.” I wasn’t sure what she meant by that. Of course both of my parents love me, I thought to myself, but why don’t they love each other anymore?

Children don’t necessarily think their parents’ divorce is about them, or it’s their fault. I couldn’t understand how a love strong enough to bring me into this world could ever die. It made my own existence feel empty.

Shortly after I moved in with my dad, my mom decided to move to Taiwan to teach English. She lived on the other side of the world for nearly four years, only returning for short visits at Christmas time. She moved back home when I was thirteen. Today, she describes the move to Asia as an impulsive decision she made to run away from everything.

He’s a complex man, but he has a big heart.

Watching my family cope, I learned that we all communicate, deal with conflict, and show love differently, which makes it hard to understand each other, and often results in a fight. We do what we know, and we usually learn our behaviour from what we see our parents do. My dad was raised by a physically abusive mother, and he never felt good enough for either of his parents. He was bullied in school, which was what led to his boxing career. My dad grew into a self-centered person, who felt the need to define himself by his physical strength and stereotypical masculinity in order to hide his insecurities. He’s a complex man, but he has a big heart.

From fighting and weightlifting, my dad has lived with chronic pain for as long as I can remember. His body has been through a lot, and that only adds to the health issues he’s inherited from his mother’s side of the family; depression, anxiety, poor blood circulation, arthritis, diabetes, the list goes on. My dad’s been on narcotic pain killers, blood thinners, and anti-depressants my whole life. At one point, he was taking 14 different pills daily. After the divorce, losing his daughters and his marriage hit him hard, and he began to drink heavily.

III

I’ve only seen my dad cry once. I’ll never forget the way it made me feel, to see the invincible man succumb to the strength of his sorrow. It felt wrong, like it was something that wasn’t supposed to happen; Superman taking a sick day. It was during a time when alcohol, in combination with his prescription drugs, began to warp his personality. My sisters and I were in our teenage years and starting to date. Does that provide enough context? He was over-protective, controlling, and scary as hell. He used his physical strength and size to intimidate and threaten the boys we were seeing. The guys I went to school with who once looked up to my dad were now terrified of him.

One time, my sister Milena’s date drove her home about a half hour after “curfew,” and my dad chased him off the property with a fire poker. This was followed-up with a visit from the police and a loud, sleepless house until the early hours of the morning. But it wasn’t every day that my dad was like this – only the bad days. For the most part, my sisters and I were very close with him, but we knew he could snap at any moment.

So what made my dad cry? It was a dream. He hadn’t spoken to my sister, Anastasia, for months following a big fight they’d had, and she’d moved back in with my mom. He dreamt that he was holding her as a baby, looking into her eyes and singing her to sleep. It completely broke him. He just missed her so much. I found him slumped at his computer, slowly typing-out an e-mail to Anastasia with his gigantic hands, sobbing into the keyboard. It was, and still is, the most heart-breaking thing I’ve witnessed.

When I visit my dad, I don’t know who I’m going to see. I don’t know if I’ll be sitting through an awkward conversation with the insecure, condescending, and belligerent monster that inhabits his body sometimes, or reminiscing with the hero of my childhood, who made the world seem so small when he lifted me up onto his shoulders.

IV

Sometimes I think the amount of alcohol and drugs my father consumes is enough to kill an average-sized man ten times over. I truly struggle with the concept of how his body has endured this long. He’s sixty now. He still does his boxing workouts in the basement, still retells his old stories, with new versions of slightly evolved details every time, and still listens to Tom Jones. But just as many things about him have changed…

When I visit my dad, I don’t know who I’m going to see. I don’t know if I’ll be sitting through an awkward conversation with the insecure, condescending, and belligerent monster that inhabits his body sometimes, or reminiscing with the hero of my childhood, who made the world seem so small when he lifted me up onto his shoulders. Little by little, his personality is buried deeper and he becomes less familiar to me, but I know my dad is still in there somewhere.

A little while ago, I paid my dad a visit and brought a boy along. His name is Carey, and we are happily engaged. He’s a master of conflict studies, and one of the gentlest people I’ve ever met. He’s careful, forgiving, and kind. When my dad invited him downstairs for a boxing workout, he respectfully declined. Instead, they engaged in conversation about history and politics.

My dad had been wrong about “the boy I would bring home.” He didn’t have to be defeated, and he didn’t have to lose me. He just had to accept that he doesn’t always have to fight. 

Milan Hrebacka

Milan Hrebacka


Paulina Bio

Paulina Grace Hrebacka

Paulina is an aspiring writer with an interest in philosophy, cultural criticism, journalism, and creative non-fiction. She also enjoys music, film, photography, and astronomy. On a good day, you might find her eating pizza and enjoying an amber ale, or listening to very loud music while driving too fast. She is a true lover of life.

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