71: Sure Bet

71: Sure Bet

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Messages from Heaven

Sure Bet

When you make a bet, you’re saying something.

~Al Alvarez

In the last few years of his life, my father loved going to the horse races. My brother, Mike, and he would discuss that day’s racing form and off they’d go to one of their favorite tracks near Cincinnati. At the time, my son Zach and I lived in northern Michigan, and we’d join them every time we came to town.

A few days before Valentine’s Day 1993, Mike told me that Dad was dying from stomach cancer, with no more than a month to live. I sent Dad a dozen red roses with a note that read, “To My Favorite Valentine.” When Dad called to thank me for the flowers, he asked if I could make the trip to Cincinnati to help my stepmother Jane take care of him for the next few weeks.

“We need you, sweetheart,” my father said in his gentle, matter-of-fact voice.

“Of course,” I said. “I’ll be there as soon as I can.”

When I arrived at Dad and Jane’s apartment several days later, a nurse was giving them an overview of at-home hospice services. Her name was Mary Angel. True to her name, Mary filled the room with compassion and gave us the confidence we needed for the difficult days ahead.

During the first week of my stay, Dad could still sit up in his favorite chair and carry on a conversation. His chair occupied a space just a few feet from a glass patio door through which we watched the snow fall, collecting flake by flake on the trees that lined the ravine below. A bright red cardinal often perched on the tree branch closest to the window, the one bold spot of color in an otherwise gray and white landscape. The cardinal seemed to peer intently through the glass, singing his heart out just for us. To this day, I cannot see a cardinal without thinking of my father.

Eventually, a hospital bed was set up in the living room to maximize Dad’s comfort at night and to help us in our care for him. I slept on the couch beside him to assist with trips to the bathroom. During the last few days of his life, Dad had whittled his vocabulary down to two essential phrases: “It doesn’t matter” and “I love you.” The first usually referred to some human drama going on around him; the latter was spoken to anyone who came into his presence.

One morning, we moved my father to the hospice center near the hospital. We left him later that afternoon resting comfortably, watching a golf tournament. Jane and I kissed him and said “Goodbye” and “I love you,” never dreaming those would be our last words to him. The weather channel forecast a winter storm that night, so we thought it best to get home.

In spite of the inclement weather, my brother Mike made it to see Dad later that evening. Mike recounts sitting by Dad’s bed, stroking his thin white hair at the temples. Drawing from their times at the racetrack, Mike sighed and said, “Oh, Dad… This is one ‘long shot’ I don’t think we’re going to win.”

That morning around three, the phone rang. It was a hospice nurse telling us that Dad was about to make his transition. “He seems very peaceful,” she whispered. “His breathing is slow and shallow.”

I told her to tell Dad how much we loved him and that we would be there as soon as we could. Before we could make it out the door, however, the phone rang again.

“Mary,” the gentle voice on the other end of the line said. “He’s gone.”

Several days later, after finishing some preparations for Dad’s memorial service, Jane sat down to read the paper while I went into Dad’s study to work on an article for a local magazine. I was staring at blank paper when I heard Jane’s startled voice coming from the living room.

“Mary? Is this yours? Where in the world did this come from?”

I rushed to see what she was talking about. There she stood in the middle of the living room, holding a two-dollar bill.

“No, this isn’t mine,” I said tentatively as I took the bill from her hand and examined it. “In fact, I haven’t seen one of these in years.”

The bill was crisp, clean and absolutely flat, as if it had just come off the printing press. Neither she nor I could imagine how it got there. The only other person who had been there that morning was a man who delivered a plant from a nearby florist shop. No currency had been exchanged.

I laid the two-dollar bill on the table next to Dad’s chair and didn’t give it another thought until Mike called later that afternoon to see how we were doing. After discussing dinner plans, I remembered the two-dollar bill.

“Mike, the strangest thing appeared in the middle of the living room floor today,” I said and proceeded to tell him about Jane’s mysterious find. “It’s brand new,” I added, “like it’s never seen the inside of a wallet.”

There was a palpable silence and then my brother finally spoke. “It’s a two-dollar bet.”

“Oh, my God,” I said, breathlessly. Every nerve in my body tingled. If our father were to choose a sign out of all possible signs, this was the one the whole family would understand. Two dollars is a traditional bet, two being the common denominator at the racetrack.

“It’s a sign,” Mike said. “Dad’s telling us he’s okay.”

As we grieved the physical loss of our father over the months that followed, that two-dollar bill became a touchstone of comfort for everyone.

Life after death is not such a long shot after all, Dad was telling us beyond the grave.

It’s a sure bet.

~Mary Knight

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