I just spent three days in England with my dad, and two days in Vegas with my best friend. In 11 days, I slept in six different beds (not as exciting as it sounds).
It all started with a phone call. Well, it started long before that I'm sure. But my leg of the journey started with a phone call from my dad saying he really wanted to go to the Cheltenham Festival and watch my brother Sean's horse run before he was too old to travel that far. But then he added, "I know I'm already too old to travel that far alone." For the record, I'm not sure that's true. He said he called my brother Joe but he couldn't get away. He sounded completely defeated, downcast, so I started joking around, 'Wait a minute, you want someone to go to England with you and you call Joey and when he says no, that's it? You don't think to invite me? I thought I was the favorite child...?'
Silence for about three seconds.
Then rapid fire questions.
"Are you serious? Are you really mad? You can't go can you? You wouldn't be able to swing it would you? What about the kids? What about your job? Do you have a passport? Could you go? Do you want to go? Would you really actually think about going?"
I hadn't thought that far in advance. I was just trying to joke him out of being depressed. But a seed was planted. And no, I didn't have a passport, or a plan. Of any sort. And it was about 18 days before the race. Then he started backpedaling, he wasn't sure he could get the time away, thought his horse might be sick, didn't think anyone else on the planet was capable of taking care of said horse. He told me he had to think about it over the weekend and he would call me Monday. He seemed reluctant to leave the farm and mentioned he wasn't sure he could 'get his stomach and back right enough to travel,' (that's as much health information as you're ever likely to get from my dad). I figured there was no way he was going, and forgot all about it. Then he called on Tuesday, exactly two weeks before Valdez's race.
"Do you really want to go?" he asked. If your 79-year-old father asks if you really want to go anywhere with him, the answer is always yes.
I hung up and thought 'How am I going to pull this off?' First step was the passport. I did some research and realized I had to apply in person at a passport office and beg and grovel for an expedited passport. And to do that you have to have proof of travel within two weeks - as in pre-purchased, non-refundable, non-transferrable plane tickets to London. And you have to make an appointment, and it could take up to five business days after the appointment for it to be ready to be mailed to you. Mailed. "How?" was quickly becoming "no way." The first available appointment in D.C. was March 11 - the day of Valdez's race. Crushing. Next call was Philadelphia - they had an appointment Friday Feb. 28. We were going to fly out of Philly Sunday March 9. No one would take those odds, but I called my dad and gave him the spiel, and the price of the last-minute plane tickets. I was mid frantic "what if" when he said "Sheila," I kept going, again "Sheila," I was lost in worry, "Sheila!" I stopped...and he said, "It's only money." Right.
But who was this calm guy? Anyone who knows him knows that being calm, cool and collected is not always his thing. I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained - if it didn't work we were out a couple thousand dollars, but if it did work, my God, if it actually worked, and if Valdez actually won, we'd be in England, at Cheltenham, with Sean, fulfilling a dream.
So with flight confirmations in hand and a birth certificate reading "unnamed Clancy" (that's a whole other story) that has been handled so many times it's on the verge of disintegrating, I headed to Philly. I've never been that nervous in my life. Getting through security was a nightmare...wasn't expecting that...I know how to travel and never wear jewelry or a belt at the airport. Didn't think of it here and everything I was wearing was setting off alarms...zipper in my jeans, zippers in my boots, underwire in my bra. And I had a bag full of liquids...water bottle, lotion, static guard (it's a big bag). Seriously it took about 40 minutes to get through the front door. I was watching the seconds dwindle away toward my 10 a.m. appointment (was I dead in the water if I was late?). Then I waited and waited and when I got called up I handed over the barely legible birth certificate. That got a raised eyebrow and an "mmm hmmm." Didn't bode well. Then she asked me the reason for my travel, and I said, "My 79-year-old father decided two things this week. He wants to go to England and he's too old to travel alone." She didn't say a word. Processed the paperwork, put it in a pile and was about to call, "Next." I panicked. I asked if I could have it overnighted to me, and she said "No." I just stood there, gutted. Then she motioned for me to lean in and said "My dad's 91. Come back at 2:30 and I'll have it ready for you."
What an angel. That still left a whole lot of things to cover and a host of people to do the covering. My boss's reaction to my last-minute request for a week away was "my dad died when he was 52. Have a blast." My husband Brian's response was simple, "You have to go," my mother-in-law and sister-in-law said "we're coming." Buddy and Kate Martin handled everything on the farm in Pennsylvania, my mom handled everything at the house (while hobbling around in a boot with a broken foot), Joe juggled his schedule to take care of Dad's horse Rich, (I'm sure Sam and the boys helped with the juggling), my best friend let me leave a long planned Vegas weekend a day early (though she admitted she would ONLY have done that for my dad), and Sean handled all of our across the pond details - lodging, transportation, race tickets/passes, with virtually no notice at all. Matt Coleman helped with the lodging and Richard Hutchinson delivered us safely home from the races (sans traffic) both days. And everyone on that list handled all of the above with complete nonchalance, like we were asking them to pass the salt.
I landed at BWI from Vegas at 1:49 Sunday morning, by the time I hopped in the car it was 3:30 (dreaded daylight savings time). That left plenty of time to get to Philly for our 10 p.m. departure. Plenty of sleep would have been ideal, but plenty of time was a gift, too. Everyone kept asking me if I was nervous about traveling, and I wasn't. Didn't occur to me. Might have, had I heard about Malaysian flight 730 before I left. But the last time I traveled out of the country with my dad was during his drinking days - how hard could this trip be? Then he walked in right past me at the dining room table and yelled "Where's Sheila?" to my mom. "Um, Dad...I'm a little nervous about taking you to London when you can't even find me in the dining room." That was the only moment I questioned my decision, just for a split second. Well that and when he told me on the phone he went to the bank and got plenty of Euros.
"Dad, where are you going?"
"Don't be smart. We're going to London."
"Right. Where they use pounds."
"No they don't. Sean told me to get Euros not pounds!"
Exact opposite conversation with Sean.
"I told him NOT to get Euros, to get pounds."
Comedy. We were golden from then on. Traveling was uneventful other than Dad asking 700 times if he could put his passport away yet. Little trouble with the buttons on the plane...putting his seat back, working the in-flight entertainment system, turning off his light (kept hitting the call button instead). But that could happen to anyone. What couldn't happen to almost anyone is traveling that distance at almost 80, while living with chronic pain. He never complained about anything, not once. It's the happiest I've seen him in years, maybe ever.
We made it to the hotel at about 2 p.m. London time (10 a.m. our time - so 15 hours after we left home and probably double that since I'd slept) and followed Sean's instructions, "Whatever you do DON'T go to sleep. You have to just power through and not go to sleep until like 10."
So we checked in to our two twin bedroom (not kidding - like staying at camp) and headed downstairs to lunch. Had a little trouble with the menu...rocket? What's that? Seems to be on everything. How about Bream? Marie Rose? We were shooting in the dark, and of course we didn't ask for help or ask any questions (it's a Clancy thing). I did learn that rocket is arugula. Ahhhh, my favorite.
Decided to explore a little after lunch, and we did ask if we could walk to Gloucester. They hesitated, looked us over, and then said..."noooo, it's 3 miles. But you can walk just down to the village and take the bus." That seemed reasonable. Until we walked out and realized that I thought he had listened to the directions to the village and he thought I had. In my defense I have the worst sense of direction on the planet (I need the GPS to get out of my neighborhood). He should know better. So we're wandering down the lane, past sheep, cows and some seriously cool cottages, when we both said "where did she say we turn?"
I did hear something about a school, which we passed...twice. We'd already walked way longer than "just down to the village," but we did finally go the right way past the school. Asked a nice local couple where the bus stop was (see how we're growing?) - they were very sweet and told us it was "just there," as in exactly where we were standing. I give them immense credit for not adding "You stupid Americans."
Climbed on the bus with little to no idea where it was going.
My dad asked the driver "Do I pay you?"
"I wouldn't know. Depends where you're going."
Right. So we paid (not in Euros) and sat down and then realized we had no idea where Gloucester was, how far, or how we'd know when we got there. We did sort that part out, but it wasn't exactly what we thought it would be. Not quite London, not quite the cool countryside of our hotel. We did find awesome lattes and biscuits (short bread cookies), and what we thought was the famous Gloucester Cathedral. Went in, took some pictures, added Valdez to the prayer book and went on our way. Took a cab home since we couldn't figure out where to catch the bus. I gave him the name of our hotel "Bowden House" and he asked "In Upton St. Leonards?" Um, could be. Who knows?
It was. And when we got there I found some brochures on Gloucester and the famous cathedral - which is where they filmed part of Harry Potter, and it was definitely not the church we visited. My kids will never forgive me. Harry Potter set and we missed it. Not really sure you're supposed to ask for a prayer for a horse to win either. How legit is that? Other than those missteps, the trip was amazing. Hotel was perfect, food was stellar. Dad in his glory.
And Cheltenham? I'm not the racing buff in the family, but I was awed, what an amazingly beautiful place. It is nothing short of astounding. As Sean said, "It's like God looked around the world and asked, 'Where would a good spot for a racetrack be? Oh yeah, Cheltenham.' "
The setting is that perfect. It looks like the hills were built around the track, like it was there first and everything else grew up around it. They do everything they do like they're the best in the world. I watched more than one hurdle race with 28-horse fields. Twenty-eight. And they all finished. Takes the shine off the apple of American steeplechasing a bit. When they turn for home and spread out across the course they've got nothing but room and time, and from that moment on it's the best horse wins.
And the crowd? The crowd is there for that best horse, for the second-best horse, the third-best and even the fourth-best. Those top four finishers head to a winner's enclosure after the race. A semi-circle of love and accolades. Like a mini, packed, amphitheater. I never figured out if the people surrounding it stayed there all day just to congratulate the winners or if they filed in just after the finishers crossed the line. But these are serious horse racing fans. They're cheering for old champions, some who have passed the baton and will never race again, and for the new winners who will become new heroes, new legends, and one day in the not too distant future old champions themselves. It's like a horse race anywhere with everything they encompass...moments, lives, careers made, dreams shattered, all in an instant. It's all that and more. Better. Cheltenham just does all of it better.
And for us, our dream? Not shattered. Not completely fulfilled either. For a couple of seconds we thought Valdez was going to win. And those moments...absolutely worth the trip. I took my eyes off Valdez for a second and looked at my dad, at Sean, at Sean's wife Anne, her sister Stella, Richard Hutchinson, Matt Coleman and the whole of our cheering section...
That moment was worth the trip. Worth the expense. Worth all the sacrifices. To believe, for even a second that it all might come true. People go their whole lives without moments like those, much less a family to share them with. I am lucky beyond words.
"The world will break your heart 10 ways from Sunday. That's guaranteed. I think of everything everyone did for me, and I feel like a really lucky guy," - Pat Solitano in one of my favorite movies, The Silver Linings Playbook.
Me too Pat, me too.
And if he had won? It would have felt a little like a made-for-TV Hallmark movie (sorry Sean). I've been around long enough to know life doesn't always work that way. We made it safely there and had an incredible time, Valdez ran an amazing race and came out of it perfectly. He was simply outmatched. Sometimes that's the best you can hope for. And sometimes, more often than we acknowledge or appreciate, that's more than enough.