11 June 2013

Tonight, it was the boys and me and poker. As I wrote on Feb. 6, when I come home to visit my father now, if at all possible, I coordinate it with one of his poker games. 

Since before I was born, my Dad has been playing poker every other Tuesday with the same group of guys. My Dad is the only one who’s still alive from the initial group that played at my house when I was little. I would sit on my Dad’s lap and watch and learn: Bobby started playing when I was in college and he’s still in the group, but the rest of the men came along later. 

It’s almost impossible for me to put into words how much I enjoy these poker evenings. I look forward to them as soon as I know I’m coming home next. I’m the only girl who’s ever played with them and only one of two offspring who has. I don’t know if the other kids aren’t interested, but, somehow, that makes at all the more special to me. 

It’s an activity my father and I can do together and we don’t have that many of those. My father may be getting foggier as his various illnesses and age make him increasingly frailer, but it’s a big mistake to think he’s not sharp as a tack when it comes to reading his cards. Maybe it’s the equivalent of muscle memory, but he can be forgetful and seem out of it right up to the moment that first hand is dealt, but then it’s game time and he’s a shark. Tonight, after he’d been the only player to go high (we play high/low), which meant he automatically won, one of the other players looked at Dad’s cards to see if he’d been bluffing and my Dad swatted at his hand. I have never seen my father swat at anything other than a fly and I think we were all stunned, but that’s how seriously my father takes his poker. (He hadn’t been bluffing, by the way).

Furthermore, while the games we play are made up by the men and they actually frown upon playing anything that slightly resembles a straight poker game, like Texas Hold ‘Em or Five Card Draw, they are all business and the business is cards. We may talk a little about sports— tonight the big talk was about North Carolina State and University of North Carolina playing each other in the NCAA baseball tournament that’s going on in Omaha—but otherwise, there’s no empty chatter. I enjoy the focus and, quite frankly, not having to hear how everyone is and how their day went. It’s on a need-to-know basis and unless someone brings something specific up, there’s just a general assumption that everyone and their families are good. 

Having said that, there’s a gruff kindness and caring that goes on during the game. All the men, other than one, are in their 70s and 80s, but my dad is the least mobile so when we take our ice cream break at 9:30 p.m., he never has to lift a finger. Someone brings him his ice cream exactly the way he likes it —half a bowl, lots of whipped cream— and makes sure he has water. Tonight during the break, for the first time that I’ve heard, the men discussed a player’s children (who are my age). Bill, who brought my father into the game, died a few years ago, preceded by his wife. One of the other members handles the investments from the estate and he and my dad were talking about Bill’s three children and making sure they were faring OK, which, of course, under John’s smart eye, they are. 

In the three years since I started playing with the boys, I’ve grown more confident in my abilities. I went from playing twice that first year to probably four or five times a year now and while some of the games still throw me, I’ve got many of them down. So much so that I was the big winner tonight. It’s the second time out of the past three that I’ve played that I’ve taken the men’s money. They may ban me soon... Well, maybe not. I think they’re proud when I win. I’ve done good. They’ve all had a hand in gently schooling me and they can see the improvement I’ve made (now, if I could just get the betting down...)

In fact, in May, my Dad told me that one of the men had called to see if I was going to be in town that Tuesday because they were going to be down a man. Before he phoned the usual round of local substitutes, he wanted to check with Dad on the off chance that I would be in Raleigh. I don’t know if I’ve ever received a higher compliment.  

So tonight, as I was counting my winnings, I told the men about this blog and asked if they had a charity they’d like me to donate to. Don brought up Hospice of Wake County. When his wife, Jan, was dying of breast cancer, they were really good to her. He spoke quietly about hospice coming into their home and providing everything to make her comfortable in her final days. It’s my pleasure to make the donation on Don’s behalf.  Plus, I took some of his money tonight, so it’s only fair. ; )

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