Tuesday, May 06, 2008

We Killed Eight Belles

I'm just going to warn you all right now that this story is disturbing as hell, so if you're having a sensitive, PMS-y kind of day you might want to read this at a later moment. If you love horses I'll suggest you don't read it at all, because well, my family and I - we kill horses. And we killed Eight Belles the other day at the Kentucky Derby.

I must first offer a heartfelt, sincere apology to the owners, trainers, handlers and fans of Eight Belles for killing her. We didn't mean to do it. We certainly don't kill horses on purpose. It just happens. It's part of the Holland Family Horse Curse.

As you all know my grandfather is gravely ill. He is so ill that there was the possibility of my not being able to even see him at all. He had been in the hospital all week. They try to keep him at home as much as possible, but sometimes his condition gets so bad that they have to take him to the hospital. For weeks now he has thought it was the Eisenhower era and if anyone tries to tell him otherwise he gets mad. He has a brain tumor that is causing dementia. Now you can imagine how scary it would be for you to swear it was the mid 1950s yet all around you are people not dressed like it's the 50s, wearing clothes that aren't from the 50s and driving cars and using computers that are definitely not from the 50s. It's a bad situation. Add to the dementia that he is frail, skeletal and sick from chemo and radiation and you can understand what we're dealing with.

But Pop wasn't always like this. He had a long career in the military. He's a General. He went to War College. When he was younger he was a tall, imposing man with a very commanding presence. He rode a motorcycle to work and came home every night and drank a few beers. He liked fried seafood and his favorite thing to do was to watch sports. His favorite sport was horse racing. When I was little and lived with Mommom Jewel and Pop Byron I always wanted to be close to Pop, but he was always watching sports and I hated sports. Except horse racing. Horse racing was about the only sport I could stand and it appealed to me because the horses were pretty, the jockeys wore brightly colored outfits and at the end they wreathed the horses in hundreds of flowers. I loved it. So whenever horse racing was on I could sit with Pop and we would pick a horse to root for and we would cheer and yell until Mommom Jewel would yell from the kitchen for us to shut up. It's one of my favorite childhood memories.

Every year Pop and I looked forward to the Kentucky Derby and we always said that one day we would get to go. I got a book from the library all about it and learned the names of all the winners and I daydreamed near constantly about wearing a gigantic hat with 25 pastel, satin bows hanging off it along with seven yards of Belgian lace, a tall ship and a bird's nest with real eggs in it. If you know me now I'll bet you can still imagine me wanting to go to the Kentucky Derby just so I could wear a completely out of control hat and sip mint juleps. To this day, I've never had a mint julep. I'm saving it for the remote possibility that I might actually get to go to Louisville. You never know.

When I was around seven or eight years old I developed a ridiculous obsession with wanting to be a jockey. It looked like a really cool occupation and I desperately wanted a career that involved wearing colorful silk jumpsuits and a little cap. Clearly I am all about hats. Obviously I had no idea what being a jockey was actually like ("Seabiscuit" hadn't yet been made) and I didn't know that I would, in a few years, grow to be way to tall for that to ever be a possibility. In the innocent meantime I fantasied about riding winning race horses and practiced by riding my very own thoroughbred, black, vinyl footstool that my grandparents called "the hassock" and beating the living hell out of it with a wooden spoon, because as you can imagine, footstools don't exactly run very fast. You have to really whip them to get them to even budge, especially when the race track is in your grandparents' wood paneled family room with a green shag rug.

One summer, around the time of my jockey obsession Pop started taking me to the horsetrack and letting me stay up way too late betting on horses. Mommom did not approve, so she said we couldn't bet anymore and she started coming with us to make sure we weren't gambling behind her back. Just for fun we would pick horses anyway and by God if every time we didn't bet real money the horses we picked would win. This proved too tempting for Mommom Jewel. We were missing out on good money, so she reversed her stance on gambling and decided to place a bet.

"Just this once," she said, "And then we're taking the money and going home. I'm just betting this one time because I really like this horse."

Mommom went and put money down on the horse we all liked.

Halfway through the race the horse was leading. We were going to win again, but then something happened and the horse tripped and fell. The other horses trampled past it and when the race was over our horse still didn't get up. An ambulance came and took the jockey away and some men walked onto the track, looked at our horse and then a few minutes later another man came out with a gun and shot our horse. It was extremely traumatic and thus began the Holland Family Horse Curse.

After that we stopped going to the track. Later that summer I got the chance to ride a horse, was thrown and ended up in the hospital with a concussion. I decided that being a jockey was no longer a viable career option and decided instead to be a famous portrait painter who marries a foreign prince, because that was way more realistic.

During this time we lived in a little white ranch house with green shutters that was out in the country. At the end of our road was a horse pasture and every night after dinner Mommom would give me carrots and apples and I would go to the split rail fence and call the horses, who would all trot over to me for treats. My favorite was a Palomino who had a long blonde tail that trailed out behind him when he ran. That October, on one of those misty, dreary Fall days when it's just starting to get chilly in Millpond, the horses all jumped the fence and escaped. I was home with a bad cold and looked out the picture window to see all of the horses galloping joyfully down our street.

The horses turned and ran through a newly planted rye field, kicking up dust. They ran in a wide circle, led by the Palomino and then they ran far up the road. The next day we learned that the Palomino, in his last moments of freedom, had run straight into the path of a Buick. The horse was killed and the driver of the Buick, a pilot from Baltimore on his way to the airport to fly to Paris, died instantly. After that the farmer moved all the horses, sold the pasture and a developer came in and built boxy tract homes where the pasture once stood.

I got older. We stopped watching horse races. I went to live with my biological father and his wife for a short time. Then I went to live with the parents I have now and we moved far away to New York where there were no horses. I never returned to the track. I forgot the Kentucky Derby, the hats, the mint juleps and the wreaths of 500 red roses and soon I was so tall that I would tower over any jockey. Because I now wanted to be a portrait painter I spent a lot of my time with a starter set of acrylics and small canvases, but I never painted horses.

This year it was a coincidence that the weekend I went to Millpond to see Pop was the weekend of the Kentucky Derby. Pop's doctor released him from the hospital Friday and we did't know if he would be well enough for me to visit on Saturday. We waited all day and my aunt talked to Mommom and convinced her to let me come over. I got there a half hour before the Kentucky Derby.

Pop looked bad. Mommom warned me that he wouldn't know me, that he gets tired and agitated and that he has severe dementia so not to be upset when he forgot who I was. None of this happened. He said my name.

"You came to see me!" he said, "It's Derby day! Do you remember when you were little and we'd watch it and you'd ride the hassock?"

Pop was completely lucid. Mommom brightened up.

"Let's pick a horse," I said, "For old times sake."

"I'm not picking a horse," Mommom said.

"Why not?"

"Don't you remember what happened last time I picked a horse? They came out and shot it!"

Then Husband, Cousin Bella and I told Mommom how stupid and superstitious she was being and how that was 25 years ago and they would never kill a horse right on the track in this day and age, especially during the biggest horse race in the world in front of millions of viewers. We told her how now they treat the horses as well as Olympic athletes and have advanced medical technology.

"Well, all right," Mommom said.

We liked Eight Belles. Black horses have always been my favorite and we had to root for the only girl in the race. She was the underdog and and she was beautiful; fast as any colt. We unanimously rooted for Eight Belles. And she won second place.

The camera focused on Big Brown's win and then there was a horse down on the track after the race ended. It looked black.

"What on earth happened?" we asked.

Something was wrong with Eight Belles. No one said anything. A few minutes later we found out that they had, indeed, in front of millions of people, euthanized a horse, our horse, right on the track. It really happened. It was our fault. We all sat there for a minute not quite knowing what to do and worrying that this would upset Pop too much. This was supposed to be our moment where we relived old times, where we cheered and we were happy again, where we forgot that Pop was so sick. It was supposed to be like when I was a child and when Pop was a tall, strong healthy man who barked orders at Corporals. Our horse was supposed to win and now she was dead and none of us wanted to say anything or acknowledge what had happened because we didn't want to upset Pop and we didn't know if he realized that the horse had died or not.

"These things happen," Pop said.

I tried very hard not to cry, because it's true. These things happen. But before she died, she still won second place and that is definitely something.

Pop stayed lucid. Before we left he said my name again.

"I love you so much," he said.

"I love you so much too Pop."

And then we left.

I can't end the story here. It was too disturbing of a thing to happen. I tried to find meaning because I guess I am too superstitious, but Pop was right. These things happen.

This reminded me of a conversation I had with Pop last summer when he was first diagnosed with lung cancer. I had been upset and had called him.

"Don't worry about me. I'm an old man," Pop told me, "This is what happens when you get old. You go to the doctor every damn day, everything starts to hurt and nothing works like it used to and the world has changed so much that you don't know where or what anything is anymore. I'm old. Old people get sick. That's just what happens and it's a normal part of life. So don't you spend your time worrying about me. I'll be fine. You just worry about yourself and go have fun and remember to do as much as you can while you're young. You let me worry about me and no matter what I love you."

And so I have tried to remember that. Old men get sick. Racehorses break their legs. These things happen. But you can count on me never ever picking another horse ever again.


One Crazy Chick! said...

Despite the horse, I'd say your day was pretty freaking special with Pop. I mean it sounds like he was lucid and enjoyed the day. Bad things happen but a day like that should always be remembered for the good!

Wide Lawns said...

I agree. I feel the same way.

Red said...

I was very close with my grandparents and know first-hand how difficult it is to watch someone you love deteriorate over time. Your Pop left you with a difficult but hard thing to learn: sometimes things just happen. Thanks for sharing with us. This was a really touching piece of writing.

Amy said...

What a special time to share with your Pop. I have special memories of moments I got to spend with my Mamie (my dad's mom) before she died 2 years ago. Really special to be able to share our love and create new memories even as I knew it was probably the last time I'd see her (and it was). Treasure it. And thank you for sharing it.

Eric said...

What a sad but wonderful story. Thanks for sharing. it reminded me of a numer of things not the least of which was a couple of years ago my company provided free entrance to Emerald Downs. i got tickets for the wife kid uncle and aunte. We arrived and I went to the cash machine and the wife freaked out that we were going to bet on horses. I handed her a 20 and she begrudgingly picked a horse to place and won the first race. After that she was hooked.

Anonymous said...

I truly hope you don't sour on the beauty of the sport. We're all sad to see an injury like that, but
even the medical experts said that they had never seen both front ankles breaking at the same time before.
Your Pop was right.
These things happen.
Nothing more; nothing less.

Unknown said...

How utterly tragic and sad! This did indeed make my eyes well up. Not only for the horse, but for your Pop, who remembered you!

My grandmother has Alzheimer's. She's not at the point where she doesn't know us...yet. But it will be here soon. Already she thinks my dad is her husband, who died over 18 years ago. One day she won't know us. That sort of stuff is just so cruel.

Reb said...

Thank you for sharing this with us all. That was a beautiful & moving tale and I am so glad for you that your Pop was lucid while you were there.

Jeannie said...

Such a bittersweet story. It was wonderful that your Pop was lucid for that one day. My Dad also had a lucid day just a couple weeks before he died.

Anonymous said...

I hope you really, really understand what a fine writer you are. This is a
beautiful story from the heart. Wishing you and your Pop great love and comfort, I know it must be difficult.


Anonymous said...

It's wonderful that you got to see your Pop and that he was having a good day. So sad about Eight Belles. My coworker bet on her for me, too. Thinking maybe the rules ought to be changed and horses allowed to mature more before starting to race.

the Bag Lady said...

I, too, was rooting for Eight Belles, and bawled like a baby when they announced what had happened.

Now, I'm bawling all over again after reading this touching post -- I'm so glad you got to spend a special day with your grandfather.

Eight Belles ran her heart out, and we could all take a lesson from her, and from your grandfather as well!

Oh, and mint juleps are not all they are cracked up to be...at least, not the one I had!

Anonymous said...

touching story. Thanks for writing it. I was so jubilant watching the race (I had chosen big brown) and then seeing the eight belles disaster was devisitating. btw - unless you really like whiskey you won't like mint julips. I think they are yuck.

Wide Lawns said...

Yeah, I'm not a huge fan of whiskey honestly. I like a touch of it in sweet desserts sometimes.

Anonymous said...

Oh honey...big hug....at least you got to see your Pop again. I lost mine, suddenly and tragically and still miss watching "The People's Court" with him every day at 4pm..."Time for Wapner!". Which is how I ended up in law.

Those precious memories and worth all the pain. If there hadn't been love...there would be no pain.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's quite a visit you had! You know, it really reminded me to enjoy life NOW. Many of us keep saying "Things will be better when..." or "I'll really enjoy life when I retire", or "have more money", but you never know when life will end or be compromised. My dad was supposed to close on his retirement house, and the day before the closing he had a stroke and died 3 days later on my birthday. (Yes, my life is almost as weird as yours - lol - almost.) So anyway, thanks for the reminder. It's so important to enjoy the present and "just be" as they say.

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