A day at the races:

EQUUS - - Equus -

My dad wasn’t well, but noth­ing was go­ing to stop him from en­joy­ing a fi­nal out­ing to our lo­cal race­track.

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 thougth he was goe." 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.”

A birth­day tra­di­tion

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

My Dad wasn’t well, but noth­ing was go­ing to stop him from en­joy­ing a fi­nal out­ing to our lo­cal race­track. By Kerry McNa­mara

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 bril­liance of the mo­ment, and, arm in arm we watched the pow­er­ful, pranc­ing gray dance his way through the gate down to the race­track. It truly was a splen­did day.

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.

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