I was irritated with no one but myself as I raced around rearranging my schedule and packing. My 93 year old Dad used to drive the 5 hour trek up to the casino at Dover Downs Delaware several times a year. I promised him that from now on I would drive him when the hotel specials came up. There was a sadness in this promise as he didn’t have many more of these trips left in him. A sudden unsteadiness and phlegmy cough, dismissed by his doctor as just old age catching up with him, worried me and seemed to get worse as we travelled north. Though I’m not a gambler, the words of Kenny Roger’s song continuously played in my mind… “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”
As we walked slowly across the parking lot to the huge concrete and steel complex the words “know when to walk away and know when to run,” flooded my mind with such a feeling of dread that I wanted to grab him and run home. Inside he dropped his wallet, oblivious, until a kindly employee handed it back to him – an old man obviously confused by his surroundings.
That evening Dad appeared sharp, confident and still able to win. The Black Jack table – his last bastion of relevance and respect. Another overwhelming sense of his mortality washed over me like a rogue wave reminding me that he was not mine to keep forever. “Cause every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser.” He was winning. I was losing. I cashed in my chips and spent the rest of the night playing mind numbing video poker machines realizing that everyone else there was probably fighting off their own tears and senses of irrelevancy and mortality as well.
Walking back up to our adjoining rooms I wanted to put my arm through his and offer support, but his pride wouldn’t allow it. We went to bed with our doors opened agreeing to wake the other in time for breakfast. The words to that song haunted me all night. “Every gambler knows that the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep.” He was always good at that I thought, thinking of his long and successful life.
Near dawn I crept to his door hoping that just one assuring look would stop the song, but his door was shut and automatically locked, and I had no key to enter his room. I listened, but no sound of his wall shaking snoring emitted through the door. No, No! Would someone please turn off that damn song…? “Crushed out his cigarette and faded off to sleep.” Don’t panic, I thought, sound proofing. No good thoughts ever come to mind in dark pre-dawn hours.
“And the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.” Where’s my ace? I thought as I dressed and walked down to the lobby and asked the desk clerk for a key to his room. In a place where you have to show ID for everything, even to eat, she didn’t question my request.
Riding the elevator back up to the 6th floor, my breath came in huge gasps, yet my lungs still begged for more oxygen… “And somewhere in the darkness the gambler he broke even.” As I stepped into my room a sliver of sunlight shown on the floor. I put my ear on the adjoining door, but this time it gave, and the music that drowned out Kenny Rogers was Dad’s beautiful phlegmy cough – the ace I would keep.
Nancy lives in Richmond with her Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, Millie.