June is a month of birthdays in my family—mine comes six days after my dad’s, so I have made it a custom to drive up to New York from Virginia every year with my husband, Mike, and our two kids. We usually celebrate with a small party at my parents’ house, and then we uphold our family tradition: My dad and I go to the races.
I’m always worried this will be my dad’s last birthday and I don’t want to miss celebrating together. Last June, we all sat out on the deck sipping red wine as the kids took turns vying for our attention. Dad’s cardiologist had warned him to limit his alcohol to one drink a day, but he was ignoring that advice today.
“You only turn 88 once,” he said, smiling, as I filled his glass for the third time.
My daughter was reciting lines from her spring play when she interrupted her own performance with a scream: “Mom, look at Papa, something’s wrong!”
I turned to see my father’s face turning purple as his eyes bulged, and he struggled to breathe. Mike leapt into action—he slid behind my father’s chair, held him by the shoulders and calmly told him to take a breath. My mother sat frozen in her chair, while I sent the kids inside; they obeyed directly.
In a moment it was over. Dad closed his eyes and gasped as the air sank into his lungs and brought him back to life. We watched in silence as the purple drained from his face and the stony gray returned. He hacked and coughed, and, as if on cue, the sky changed and light drops of rain fell on us, ending our trance.
“Let’s get you inside,” Mike said as he helped Dad up and through the patio doors into the living room. I held the edge of the wooden railing in the cool rain, waiting for the rush of adrenaline that consumed my body to subside. Then I heard my mother crying.
“I thought he was gone.” She erupted into sobs as her face fell into her hands.
“I know, but he’s not. He’s OK,” I assured, kneeling before her. “Should I call 911?”
“No,” she insisted. “Don’t call. I promised him I wouldn’t.”
“Are you sure? I really think we should.”
“Kerry, don’t call. I promised him he could die at home.”
My father has terminal heart disease and congestive heart failure; he has been in rough shape for the past two years. At night his lungs fill with fluid despite his raised bed, and he coughs continually. His heart flutters back and forth between atrial fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia, causing him to lose his breath and sometimes pass out. He has been carrying nitroglycerin around with him since his triple bypass surgery 16 years ago.
The morning after the birthday episode I worried that he wouldn’t wake up. I knew that day would eventually come, but I still wasn’t ready and supposed I never would be. I was relieved when I heard his door open and saw the wave of his dark green and white robe pass across to the bathroom. He always prided himself on looking sharp, and although age had whitened his hair and sunken his rosy Irish cheeks, he still cared about his appearance. I was in the kitchen when dad shuffled in, supported with his cane on one side and the railing on the other.
“Morning, Kid,” he said, as I rose to give him a hug.
“Morning, Dad, how are you feeling?”
“Well, I woke up, so that’s good,” he said. “What time do you want to go to the races?”
“Well, given yesterday, I figured that it might be too much,” I said, trying to sound diplomatic.
“Oh goodness, I’ve been waiting all week to go to the races,” he said. “I’m fine.”
“We could go another time,” I lied, knowing that might not be true.
“Look, the doctor said that this is going to be how it is,” he insisted, “so I’d rather go down on my feet. Come on, let’s go have fun.”
My dad has always loved going to the racetrack. He was never a big spender; that’s not why he goes. He loves the horses and loves watching the skillful riders guide them. There is a small track in Fort Erie, about an hour from our house, near Buffalo. When I was young, we went to the races almost every weekend. It was great fun and a cheap way to entertain three young kids. We delighted in running back and forth from the paddock to the track, trying to decide which horses to bet on. When the field came down the homestretch would all yell and cheer, especially when we had picked the winner—a decision we usually made based on the colors of the racing silks. Then, gleefully, we would run to the window with dad to collect our modest winnings from his two-dollar bets.
This year, I dropped Mike and my dad off at the gate to save them the long walk in from the parking lot. I arrived just in time to see the horses enter the paddock in preparation for the first race. This was always where we made our picks. My dad and I discussed all the horses, gauging how much they were sweating, evaluating their physique and considering their riders. My dad had all the stats on the jockeys and knew all the best bets.
We watched the jockeys mount up and guide the horses through the large, white gates down toward the track. The announcer listed the updated odds, and then we made our picks. I went inside to place the bets, while Mike and my dad walked up the short, steep incline to the grandstand. After each race, we returned to the paddock to watch the next set of horses. As the day wore on, I worried about my dad doing so much walking, and I offered to run back and forth to report on the horses and save him the trip, but he insisted on going back to the paddock before each race, claiming his walker made it easy.
By the end of the sixth race we had won every single bet we made. I had never in my life had such a successful day at the races.
“This is unbelievable!” Dad exclaimed, holding the next winning ticket high in the air. I watched his face for a moment, amazed. The joy in his expression had erased the scowl of pain I had gotten so used to seeing over the past two years.
“We’ve never been so lucky,” I admitted, sharing in his disbelief. “It’s like we can’t lose.”
After each race I took the winning tickets down to the teller to collect our money. I went to the same booth every time, happily witnessing the growing incredulity of the friendly woman working the counter. “Must be your lucky day,” she said smiling, as I handed her the ticket.
“Absolutely,” I smiled. “It’s been an amazing day.”
I walked back down to the paddock. Mike’s tall shadow soon appeared in the dark entryway from the track, followed by the slow-moving shadow of my father. He eagerly shuffled his walker over to the white fence and, with cheerful anticipation, waited for the next horses to arrive. I wanted us to stay in this moment forever.
“Who’s our winner this time, Kid?” he asked, wrapping his frail arm around my sturdy shoulder. We watched as the sleek horses were led into the paddock.
“I like that big gray one,” I said, pointing. “He’s beautiful and isn’t too sweaty.”
“Number 3,” Dad said, checking the program. “Creative Thunder, and Krista Carignan’s riding him—a good choice.”
“Well, let’s see if he gives you ‘the look’,” I said, gently patting his hand. My dad was convinced that horses sometimes gave him a certain knowing look as they walked by, as if to say, Pick me, I’m the winner.
As we watched the large horse pass, I kept my gaze on my father. He stared intensely, waiting for his sign. Then, nodding, he declared, “He’s our boy.”
I smiled, enveloped by the bril-liance of the moment, and, arm in arm we watched the powerful, pranc-ing gray dance his way through the gate down to the racetrack. It truly was a splendid day.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue (#477) of EQUUS magazine