A LILY FOR THE DEPARTED
Something had definitely gone haywire. Breaking into tears at the realization that Greg Norman had just failed to win the British Open at age fifty-three to become the oldest golfer ever to win a Major Championship is hard evidence of pending emotional collapse. I had never cheered for Norman before in my life, even twenty years earlier when he was the best golfer in the world. He was always too cool and aloof for me. But those were tears running down my face and a real sob being choked back in my throat.
Fortunately, my six-year-old grandson and namesake, whose tears disappear as quickly as his cookies, was too engrossed in a sizable video planet war going on in his hands to even notice. He had arrived in my bedroom to announce, "Gramma sent me to tell you to come downstairs and start the grill."
At Two Bucks Farm, we always eat "the best" when the two grandsons are visiting. The "best" in my view--as I have been warned repeatedly over the last twenty-five years--is also the most unhealthy and hedonistic. Stuff like we were having that July Sunday: steaks; cheesy, scalloped potatoes; bread and butter; and multiberry pie with thousand-calorie crust. Only thesalad would get dietary approval from the chef preparing it all. That would be the dominant female, Gramma, or to me Mary Anne, gourmet cook extraordinaire and amateur dietitian. Her idea of healthy eating leans toward brussels sprouts, tiny tasteless squashes, and stuff dredged up from the bottom of the China Sea, preferably soaked in health-protecting garlic.
Her infrequent concessions to dietary decadence are directly attributable to the grandsons' father, a South Carolinian who grew up as I did, eating whatever meat could be barbecued and whatever vegetable could be fried and fit on the plate with gravy, biscuits, and cornbread. And he was raising his sons that way, while still graciously slipping into their culinary education some of his mother-in-law's more elegant contributions such as spaghetti with clam sauce and calamari, although bypassing them himself.
Truth be told, all the men in the dominant female's life were addicted to the secret of succulent southern cooking most concisely defined in Tom Wolfe's novel A Man in Full. As Wolfe tells it, following a typical southern feast including pork-seasoned green beans, skillet corn, and berry pies, the plantation owner host invited the black cook from the kitchen to hear the accolades being passed on her meal. Asked specifically by one of the Yankee female visitors how she made so many different dishes so tasty, the cook was perplexed and slow to answer.
Finally, she said, "Just grease, honey."
This was not just any Sunday dinner at Two Bucks. It was a going-away meal for Sigita Budrikaite, our tiny Lithuanian farm manager for the last decade. Her contributions to the success of Two Bucks racehorses could only have been greater if she had owned and funded the place as well as she took care of the animals. The boys love Sigita. And they are not alone. Our business model contains a standing contingency plan dusted off and updated every time she goes back to Europe that takes intoaccount the possibility that she might decide to stay. It is called "Complete Dispersal of Breeding Stock."
Without her, we wouldn't be breeding thoroughbreds anymore. And that Sunday afternoon in July, there was an unspoken awareness that we might not be doing it much longer with her either. To me, the breeding industry appeared to be in free fall.
A few days earlier, the 2008 July yearling sale at Fasig-Tipton's Lexington paddocks--the first and only opportunity for Kentucky breeders to market their one-year-old horses--had been dismal from start to finish. Nearly half of the six hundred or so horses cataloged had gone unsold. And these were not average horses. They were among the most carefully culled, best-conformed, early maturing yearlings offered by some of the best thoroughbred breeders in the world.
For years, glowing sale reports and inflated but meaningless sale averages had masked the illness growing in the industry's underbelly: massive overproduction in the face of a shrinking market of end users and a racing industry in steep decline. In two short days, inevitability had become reality. And reality had landed especially hard at Two Bucks Farm, long a pygmy operation struggling to survive among giants, mainly on the strength of having bred Monarchos, the winner of the 2001 Kentucky Derby, whose siblings had generated more than $1.6 million in yearling revenue. In recent years, the July Fasig-Tipton sale, which featured a special section on the offspring of new sires, had become our most reliable source of income. Monarchos had been among the first crop of his sire, Maria's Mon. And more recently, the farm's mares had produced big-time racehorses from the first two crops of the young sire sensation Broken Vow, who stood at the same farm as Maria's Mon.
In a business where survival depends on the old axiom "take horse to sale--bring home money," we had sometimes broughthome as much as $400,000 from the Fasig-Tipton July sale. But this year four Two Bucks horses had gone to sale and three had come home unsold, along with a measly $20,000 that would be obliterated by entry and sale costs. Among the returnees was one of the best yearling colts who ever drew a breath at Two Bucks. He was a son of Monarchos, more like his sire than any I had ever seen. He had no conformation flaws of consequence, no veterinary issues, no lack of size or charisma nor deficiency of pedigree. He also had no interest from buyers and was withdrawn from the sale without going through the ring to avoid a public devaluation.
As I was preparing to load him into a van for his return, an even more stunning blow was delivered. With no warning, I felt a sharp pain in the back, in the vicinity of my right kidney. The thought of having been stabbed ran through my mind. But there is no backstabbing at Kentucky horse sales, just front-stabbing, usually by slick, smiling charlatans armed only with deception and a sharp mastery of a flawed system that promotes fleecing of the unaware.
Within minutes, the blood in my face had been washed out by a gush of cold sweat that dripped from my neck and forehead. Food poisoning, I surmised from my sitting position under the shade tree. An hour earlier, I had carelessly and courageously consumed a sale-quality cheeseburger, complete with a pithy slice of tomato now suspected of being a salmonella carrier.
"You don't look so good," said a friendly consignor, who had chaperoned one of my unsold yearlings from his sale barn to my van.
"Well, what do you expect for a guy who's just been robbed--and poisoned--by Fasig-Tipton?" I responded.
"I hear you," he said.
But I could barely hear him. And things got worse by the minute. Eventually Sigita arrived to help me drive home andunload the yearlings, and two hours later I was in the emergency room of the closest hospital, begging anyone within the sound of a weak voice for any painkiller within their reach.
Kentucky is a cauldron of nearly blind patriotism. Veterans in pickup trucks compete to see how many SUPPORT THE TROOPS color ribbons can be fitted onto the surface of a single tailgate. In the local barbershop that summer, men would actually cry out in anguish at a cable news suggestion that Barack Obama had a chance to be elected president. Yet no one here even raises an eyebrow about guys named Mohammed or Abdul.
That is because Woodford County is the heart of the racehorse business, the state's number one economic engine, and no one has been more important to this endeavor in the last twenty years than a guy named Mohammed ("Sheikh Mo" to us), but he is better known worldwide as Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the ruler of Dubai. Of all our rich absentee owners, he and his brother Sheikh Hamdan are clearly the biggest spenders.
They are also the best liked and most respected, mainly because of the way they meticulously maintain and expand their vast land holdings: sprawling Gainesborough Farm near Versailles, imposing Darley at Jonabell, high on a hill behind Lexington's Blue Grass Airport, and Hamdan's multiple Shadwell Farms, which seem to be everywhere. Not only do the sheikhs overpay their employees and contribute liberally to local charities; they never try to squeeze dollars out of their horses or the people they do business with--a rarity among their peers, had they any.
Now similarly highly regarded by at least one Woodford countian is Dr. Mohammad Abdul Motalib of Bangladesh, an emergency room physician at Bluegrass Hospital. This is largelydue to the first words I heard him utter in his British accent--"Two Di-laudids"--presumably to keep my moaning from alarming the Mexican families who gather in his emergency room for their only contact with the U.S. health care system. So many new Mexican citizens are born at Bluegrass Hospitals that they had to hire a multilingual nurse who knew how to say "push" in Spanish.
In no time it seemed--thanks to the "two Di-laudids," a highly addictive narcotic similar to morphine--Dr. Motalib was back at my side explaining that a CAT scan had detected four stones in my right kidney, including one four millimeters in size stalled at the entrance to my ureter.
Obviously convinced the stone could find its own way out, Dr. Motalib promptly evicted me from the ER and away from its Dilaudid supply with instructions to "drink a lot of water and walk it off." And I found myself in the hands of M.A., who had just returned from a trip to South Carolina to pick up the grandsons, ages six and seven.
"See, too many dairy products. I told you," she said. "How much milk do you drink every day? A quart at least."
Someone answering her own question is not nearly as irritating when you are trying your best to die.
One of my life's blessings is a quarter-century-long marriage to a highly educated biochemist, whose main regret is not having gone on to become a Cornell-trained medical doctor specializing in research. The lack of an MD after her name, however, has not stopped M.A. from diagnosing and prescribing treatment for any malady she comes across in dogs, horses, plants, and people, including herself.
A few years back, despite a plethora of doctors on her case, she was the only one to figure out that she had contracted a mutated strain of Clostridium difficile, a bacterium common to the digestive tract of horses, that was suddenly killing humansall over the Northeast, including Maine, from where she had just returned. It apparently was still a mystery to ER doctors in Kentucky, even though medical breakthroughs do arrive here faster than new movies. This C-dif bug, which flourishes where broad-spectrum antibiotics have wiped out its natural enemies, can fatally shut down the digestive process of man or beast. Among older Americans who contract it, the mortality rate is 25 percent.
Fortunately for M.A., one of the ER physicians, a female she insists, prescribed a drug called metronidazole that kills Clostridium, which--fortunately for me--meant that M.A. was still around to take over my treatment from Dr. Motalib. She immediately seized all the necessary credentials, including my brand-new, never-before-used Medicare card, as well as the prescriptions for nausea and pain tucked in my shirt by my Bangladeshi savior. She had them filled and returned them with a caveat.
"The water is more important than the medicine," she said. "You have to drink at least three gallons a day."
"That's a lot of water," I said.
"Horses drink ten gallons. You can do it. By the way, that tree needs water, too. Did you water the trees today?"
She had had water on the brain for some time. We were driving down the long front lane at Two Bucks, which is lined with fourteen-year-old Green Mountain maples, twenty-five or so, some still suffering from the drought of 2007. One was clearly punier than the others. Before going to South Carolina, M.A.--after an Internet search--had diagnosed the tree's illness as an attack of bore beetles, which she suspected was threatening all the others.
Watering all the Green Mountain maples on Two Bucks lane is an all-day affair, requiring the repeated emptying and refilling of a 210-gallon tank in the back of a pickup truck. Had I been forced to water them all that day, she could have planted me somewhere in the line.
Luckily, no bore-beetle assault on the trees had occurred. My own eyeball scrutiny of the dying tree had revealed it to be the nearly girthed victim of a thirsty midget woodpecker called a yellow-bellied sapsucker. Having quenched his thirst on the way south earlier in the spring, the little jerk had left only the one maple in dire need of the drought-survival watering tactics suggested by M.A.'s Web research.
"I'll take care of it," I said, and did, a physical act made possible only by the obviously still active two Dilaudids.
The next forty-eight hours are a blurred recollection from the fetal position and near-comatose state that became my refuge, and from which I was roused periodically to deal with the daily crises consistent with horse farm management--things like kittens being born inside hollow barn walls, dead skunks being delivered in truckloads of bedding, or a groundhog being cornered in the bathroom by the Jack Russell terrier. There was the usual "it just broke" machinery report, this one on our ancient diesel-powered, zero-radius mowing machine.
This is one of M.A.'s favorite pieces of equipment, which she rides up and down the perimeter grass strip along the road frontage, where from time to time she also insists on operating her own lightweight weed trimmer. Whatever her intentions, this behavior sends signals not only that she is extremely vigorous for a grandmother, but that her husband is a lazy lout too cheap to afford immigrant labor like everyone else.
A faulty piece of equipment so important to the farm's image had to be subjected to her emergency diagnosis, which ultimately required a trip chauffeured by M.A. herself to the Lexington mowing machine dealer for the replacement part. Fortunately the cramped interior of her Jaguar transport mandates the fetal position, pained or not.
The following day's crisis was less urgent but longer-lasting: a predictable farmworker frenzy when a small bulldozer belongingto a barn remodeling crew got stuck in parking gear, closing off the lone bottleneck on the farm road and limiting movement to pedestrian traffic.
Luckily the impediment did not restrict exodus from the house to the main road. Because later that afternoon, with the bulldozer still in park, the employees still afoot, and M.A. off in her Jaguar with the grandsons, I shamelessly drove myself down Two Bucks lane, past the dying Green Mountain maple for which I had renewed sympathy, and directly to the Bluegrass Hospital ER, where I intended to request immediate euthanasia.
Though I would have settled for "two Di-laudids," the man from Bangladesh was nowhere in sight. But a new set of radiographs confirmed that I was blocked as tight as the farm road, machinery full of gas, and none of the motors working. The ER doctor gave me two new prescriptions and an appointment with another physician for the following Monday--a three-day interval I had little hope of surviving.
Back home, M.A. again confiscated all my prescription drugs, perusing them like a narc intent on arrest. "It's the pain pills that are shutting down your digestive process," she said, authoritatively. "I wouldn't take any more of those. And this broad-spectrum antibiotic, you don't need that either. That's bad. But you have to take this one."
She was holding up one of the vials like it was a silver bullet. "Flagyl," she said, remembering the brand name for metronidazole.
"Flagyl saved my life. Probably what saved Little Bold Belle, too. You could have what we had," the "we" being my wife and my horse.
Little Bold Belle is one of our best mares, the dam of Unbridled Belle, a multiple graded stakes winner of over $1.5 million, and more recently the dam of Monarchos's most promising son, Stones River, already a stakes winner at three. The spring afterM.A. contracted Clostridium difficile, Little Bold Belle nearly died from an equine version, Clostridium perfingens. She was in one of the world's most expensive equine hospitals for thirteen days, lost more than two hundred pounds, and was sent home to die, which she stubbornly refused to do. Her hospital bill was over $20,000, more than Mary Anne's. For that amount of cash, both woman and horse could have spent a week at the Drake Hotel in Chicago and gone shopping on Michigan Avenue.
M.A. shook the metronidazole vial before my eyes one more time.
"You better take these."
Whether I did without fail and at the proper intervals is beyond my recollection. The next two days were only an agonizing haze--during which I flopped around in search of a comfortable position. In spite of all the medical attention received and scientific expertise offered, no one had delivered what I really needed. A plumber.
A lot of people who regularly take care of horses no longer can smell them, although horses have a distinct odor readily apparent to most humans. But many horsemen retain a keen sense of smell otherwise.
Sigita, who has been around horses all of her life, can smell a rotovirus infection in a foal long before any clinical signs become apparent. But I rarely smell anything less pungent than gasoline. Over the years my sense of smell has deteriorated even more than my eyesight and hearing. Not only do the smells of horses and their spore escape me; the scents of cabbages boiling, meat smoking, biscuits baking, and--sadly enough--perfumed-drenched women are all beyond my discernment.
But there is something about the C-dif bacteria or its pharmaceutical enemy, metronidazole--no one seems to knowwhich--that heightens a human's sense of smell to an incredible degree. At some point during the delirium days, my long-missing sense of smell returned, enhanced exponentially. There was nothing, it seemed, that I could not smell. Not only could I smell horses again; I could detect differences in them. I could smell vegetables that I never knew had scents, flowers and perfumes from ridiculously far away, deodorizer fumes in elevators, and the body odors of people who passed me in the drugstore. I felt like a dog. They could have used me to sniff luggage at the airport or track escaped criminals through the woods.
The most disturbing aspect of it all was that I could smell myself. Neither hours in the Jacuzzi nor long showers with M.A.'s fragrant bath oils could keep me from smelling myself. Could this be the mysterious pheromone that somehow attracts us to the opposite sex? If it was, how could any woman have ever been attracted to mine? Can a person smell his own pheromones? Who knows? Whatever was going on had honed my sense of smell to the same level of acuity that lets skin detect heat, or makes hair follicles move to static electricity. For the first time, I understood how horses can differentiate one human from another by smell, or pick up on a rider's fear or confidence, which I always believed they did. Something--drug or disease--was setting new parameters by which my brain processed and reacted to whatever was being picked up by my keener senses.
What other possible explanation for crying over Greg Norman and a golf tournament? And what about the delusions that awaited me when I answered the summons to start the grill? When I showed up downstairs, it was from the perspective of an out-of-body experience.
I watched myself start the grill for Sunday dinner, free of pain for the first time since Tuesday, no longer fetal-bent but ramrod straight. And I saw my farm manager, Sigita, out of her farm manager uniform of jeans and sneakers, in makeup anddress-up Sunday clothes. And wasn't that a hint of perfume in her hair wafting across the room?
She was presenting something to M.A. It was a huge lily, deep red and white, which for some reason looked familiar.
"I grew it in my yard," I heard Sigita say.
M.A. took it immediately to the kitchen sink, cut and arranged it into a large vase of water. Soon a sickening sweet aroma engulfed first the kitchen, then the entire house, and finally even the patio where I was grilling. It was a smell out of my past, only magnified a thousandfold by whatever had hold of my senses.
Then I realized what it was. A stargazer lily, one of the most fragrant flowers on earth and with which I had a history. When I was a child in Tennessee, members of my family had spent many hours in and around a funeral home owned by my grandfather's best friend, the local sheriff, whose political clout was rooted in his undertaking business.
As the sheriff's sidekick and principal deputy, my grandfather led the funeral processions on his police motorcycle and was the unofficial mortuary security man in his off-hours. My mother was a regular volunteer political worker and virtually camped during election seasons in campaign headquarters two floors above a basement "embalming" chamber. I was often left to wander among the viewing rooms, where the departed were laid out and where two odors became imprinted in my sensibilities forever.
One was that of embalming powder, which burned my nose, and the other was the overwhelming, sickening sweet smell of stargazer lilies. They were omnipresent in funeral homes all across the South, a permanent disguise for the smell of death and embalming powder. The lilies could be found at the ends of the caskets, serving as backdrops for the wreaths and other floral arrangement that moved in and out with the corpse.
These remembrances rode the aroma of Sigita's stargazer lily into my brain. Embalming powder, funeral processions, long-gone relatives, and viewing room conversations from sixty years ago. Again I felt tears streaming down my own face.
All my formal education being in the arts, not the sciences, I can only surmise a physiological connection between human emotions and senses. The day Monarchos won the Kentucky Derby, my ability to hear vanished for ten minutes after he crossed the finish line. And that July Sunday on the patio, my hearing became as acute as my sense of smell.
From far across the large music room in my old Kentucky home, I heard M.A. tell Sigita that she was taking our grandsons on a fishing trip the following Friday. What the hell was that about? I had heard the story many times of her catching a thirty-five-pound muskie when she was a girl. But that didn't make her Izaak Walton. What did she know about fishing? I, on the other hand, had been a fishing guide as a young man. I had caught more fish in my life than M.A. had eaten, and that's saying something. Besides, grandfathers are supposed to take grandsons fishing, not grandmothers.
And then it dawned on me. The return of smell and hearing, the sharpness of vision, the absence of pain in my gut, the emotions riling right under my skin. Maybe I wasn't really downstairs starting the grill. Not in the flesh anyway. Obviously I had died, maybe at the precise moment Greg Norman blew the British Open, and no one knew it yet. Or then again maybe I had died days before while watering the tree, and everybody was over it already. Nobody was crying, that's for sure.
Yes, indeed, this could be my own wake. That would certainly explain the funeral flower Sigita had brought from her backyard to the new widow at Two Bucks. A lily for the departed.