The chatter of a foreign language zipped around the table. Tall beers, mexican food, and a flurry of waiters busboys, and latin hostesses filled the room. L'il Otis slept through it all as I sat with Mrs. Otis and two smiling people.
Amazing, I thought.
About 18 years ago, my dad taught me to play poker with plastic chips and an old deck of cards. Over the years, he'd sit in on games with my high school friends, schooling us on when to draw and when not to draw.
Years later, he'd take me on my first trip to Vegas. I was too young to play at the time, occasionally slipping next to a slot machine for a few pulls or up to a roulette table for a few spins of the wheel. My dad would be sitting in a poker room, raking chips, hitting bad beat jackpots, and staying up much later than he ever did in life around the house.
At the time, I remember longing to be sitting there with him, slinging chips, playing the old father and son games that we did in the years before.
In April of 2003, I won an award for a project I completed in my day job. It was fairly prestigious and was presented to me in Atlantic City in front of my wife and parents. Afterwards, Dad and I headed to a poker room and sat up until 4am coffeehousing with the locals and fufilling my dream of playing as father and son.
As we got ready to part the next morning, Dad cornered me by the elevators and slipped a roll of cash into my hand. He knew I was pretty poor and didn't have much of a bankroll to play. "I didn't lose as much as thought I would on this trip. Take it and do whatever you want with it," he said.
The summer passed and I had done little with the money. I'd played in a few home games with it and built it up a little. I took it to Vegas and played with it there, raking pots and thanking Dad for it all along. It's good to have a backer, I thought.
By October of 2003 I was playing better and winning more. I'd gone on a weekend trip to a semi-annual music festival I use to get my head straight. That October trip had been fun, but busted in the waning moments when the social dynamic of a long-time group of friends was ripped apart by the indiscretions of one of my buddies. The thoughts were weighing on my mind as I drove home from the mountains.
I picked up my dog from the kennel and was five minutes from home when my brother called on my cell phone.
"Dad is in the hospital," he said.
My brother, the doctor, went on to explain as best he could in layperson's terms what had happened. An aneurysm had ruptured behind my dad's left eye, forming a huge clot in his brain. The chances of him living were slim. If he managed to pull through, the chances of him living any normal sort of life were almost none. The best-case scenarios in discussion were life in a wheelchair that would probably have to be attended to my a fulltime nurse.
Barely showered from my camping trip, I hopped on a plane with my wife and flew home. Eight hours later I was looking at my dad, the gregarious, chip-slinging hero. He was full of tubes, unconcious, and looking worse than I'd ever seen him.
I tried to play the tough guy, the rock for the family. But as a card player I knew the odds were slim. The man had so few outs that if he'd been in a game he would've been walking away from the table before the river hit.
The doctors said they'd try to fix what was broken, but in trying to fix it, there was a better than 50% chance they would kill or paralyze him. If they didn't fix it, he would die pretty soon anyway.
We waited for three days before the first surgery before watching him get wheeled into the OR. Three hours later, the doctors emerged. "We didn't get it," they said.
Apparently, the surgery was all about "getting it" (fixing the rupture).
The surgery was a wash. We were back to square one.
Three days later, they tried again, but were largely unsuccessful. The dynamics of the surgery were changing. They'd removed the clot, but were unable to fix the rupture.
By this point, I'd done what my dad always told me to do if something were to happen to him. I'd gotten his attorney on the phone and started making arrangements to make sure my mom was set up.
I had lost my cool by that point, wandering the hospital grounds, breaking into racking crying fits that my wife tried desperately to control. I was lost.
It finally came down to a late-night discission in the Emergency Room parking lot with the chief neurosurgeon. We could leave things as they are. If we did, Dad had a 50/50 chance of living for another six months. After that, all bets were off. And even then, he likely would be wheelchair-bound and living no sort of real life.
Or, they could try one last, ultimately risky surgery.
I didn't have to think. Dad would want the surgery. He didn't want to cash. He wanted to win.
That afternoon, I stood at the OR bay doors and watched him get wheeled for a third time to what would almost certainly be the last gamble he'd ever take. It was the worst feeling I'd ever had.
An hour ticked by, then another. The waiting room phone rang and rang, but each time it was for another grieving family. About a dozen of my dad's family and friends sat thumbing through magazines, lying to themselves and each other about how they were sure everything was going to be okay.
As another hour passed I resigned myself to the inevitable. It had taken too long to be a success. I imagined my mother falling to the ground in a round of sobs and wails that I would never be able to get out of my head.
Again, the phone broke through the din. I stood and answered it, nodding as everyone watched.
I hung up and through a blur of tears announced to the room, "They got it."
That was almost a year ago, though it seems like last month. While they had "gotten it" the prognosis was still unclear. Dad had limited use of his right leg and he wasn't communicating well.
The story goes on and on in a blur of hospital rooms, rehab centers, and tears. it's a book, really. But, it culminated two months ago when my dad walked into my wife's hospital room and held his grandson for the first time.
"Look at all his hair," he said in the same voice I've been comforted by for 30 years.
Last night my parents came to town and joined my wife, son, and I for dinner. Over mexican food, Dad quizzed me about my poker playing, and sat wide-eyed as I explained my rise through the limits, my recent successes, and my struggles with maintaining discipline after big wins.
In his eyes, I saw pride and a longing to be right there at the table with me in two months when I go to Vegas.
His recovery has been amazing. He still has a good distance to travel before he'll feel like he's actually recovered enough to outsmart the sharks at the poker tables. I think he's already there, but he's a calculating sonofagun and wants to be at his prime when he sits back down again.
I'm ready for that day.
I'd intended for this to be a one-paragraph post, about how I want to see ALL my online and offline friends in Vegas (make it happen people), to be sure to sign up for the WPBT V on Poker Stars, and to let everyone know that I'm taking a long weekend in the mountains to listen to Billy Joe Shaver, Acoustic Syndicate, and whoever else tickles my fancy.
And then I remembered that it was on my way home from this trip last year that I heard my dad was about to die.
There's something beautifully cyclical about life. From a father's teachings to his son, to a son's love for his father, to a father becoming a grandfather and caring for his grandson for a weekend so his son can go away and find his head again.
This year when I drive back down the mountain, I know my father and son will be safe at home, which means I can sit by a lake for three days and think.
Poker is a game of skill, no doubt. But life can be a game of good fortune. And I am, perhaps, the most fortunate person I know.
Have a good weekend, all.