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Essay: Spreading Dad’s Ashes at Pimlico

“Dad instilled in me my love of horses.”

Maria and her dad in 2005. Photo courtesy of Maria Wachter.

History is measured as AD or BC: before and after Christ. I view life before Dad died and after Dad died.

My dad died when he was 57 years old from lung cancer. Yes, he smoked himself to death — even on his deathbed, weighing about 75lbs, he would hobble over to the bathroom to smoke cigarette after cigarette. I guess there was no point in him stopping then. No reason to go through cigarette withdrawal on top of dying of cancer. That would suck.

Thankfully he went really quick — less than three months after diagnosis. When you see a loved one dying of cancer and the pain they’re in, you pray that God will take them and not let them suffer. The morning my stepmom called me to tell me he finally passed, I let out a breath that I had been holding since the time he called to tell me that his arthritis in his neck wasn’t arthritis, it was stage four lung cancer that had spread to his spinal cord, and if he didn’t get five vertebrae in his neck fused, he’d be a quadriplegic in less than a week.

I was 29 years old at the time. Before this time, I knew people died: babies, older grandparents, other people’s friends and family. I didn’t know my family could die, and it shook my whole world. In those couple of months leading up to his death, I went through every emotion possible. I had anxiety, I had depression, I dived into learning more and more about religion and if there was an afterlife (I still haven’t figured this one out, but I do say my prayers every night to Jesus and I believe in God).

Dad instilled in me my love of horses. He would take me to the track when I was little and I instantly fell in love with all horses. He would take me trail riding on a occasion when we went on vacation and he was dealer to my drug of choice: Breyer model horses. He IS the reason why I am writing this article today for Horse Nation, and why I live on a ranch. For that, I am ever grateful.

Eventually, life resumed. I’ve matured in these past seven years. I have learned to accept that everyone dies; not everyone truly lives. There’s nothing in life that I can control, except my attitude and emotions so I no longer get upset when things don’t go my way or bad things happen. I can now look back and laugh at all the things that used to upset and scare me. I can enjoy life. I can enjoy my good memories of my dad, and not dwell on him no longer being here and me being able to see him grow old and retire. Dad dying made me a stronger person.

When Dad was sick, he wanted to be cremated when he passed. He also wanted his ashes to be spread at Pimlico Race Track in Baltimore, Maryland — home of the Preakness. Yes, my dad was a BIG TIME gambler, and loved to bet on the horses. He never lost; he always either won, or broke even.(Okay, Dad, you may convince yourself of this, but you’re not convincing me).

I’ve had some of Dad’s ashes sitting on my file cabinet for the past seven years — yes, I’m a horrible daughter and haven’t been back to Baltimore since my dad died. I finally flew back a few weeks ago to put my grandmother with dementia into an assisted living home. (Life can suck sometimes.) Thankfully, Grandma has a good outlook on life, and every time we take her on an adventure and take her back to the home, she thinks she has a new house. (She also wants to start driving again, and likes to hit on younger men.)

While I was there, I visited my stepmom. I told her I flew all the way out here and I forgot to bring Dad’s ashes.

“I have still tons of your Dad’s ashes, would you like some?” she replied. Yes, of course I would!

By now it’s dark out and I’m still on the eastern shore of Maryland, and I’m flying out in less than a day. So, I get the brainy idea of going to spread Dad’s ashes tonight… in Baltimore… a really sketchy part of Baltimore.

I call up a longtime friend Walt and ask him if he wants to go on an adventure. I tell him my plan on spreading dad’s ashes on the track. He tells me I’m crazy to go this time of night, and it’s super dangerous. I tell him, he doesn’t have to go, but I’m going. He decides to go with me.

We arrive at the track, and it’s on lockdown. Security is everywhere and I can see all the horses in the stables, illuminated under their stall lights in the darkness of night. I circle around the track a couple of times. There’s no getting in. Walt suggests I ask the guard if I could walk in and spread his ashes. Isn’t it better to ask for forgiveness than permission?

After circling and realizing there is no way I’m going to get on the track, I pull up to the gate and say “I know this sounds crazy, but I live in Las Vegas, and I was wondering if I could go on the track and spread my dad’s ashes? It was what he wanted me to do.” The guard looks at me like I’m a crack head offering to perform tricks for a hit. He promptly tells me no way. Walt whispers to me, “Ask him if he’ll spread the ashes since you can’t.”

“Sir, will you spread my dad’s ashes then?” That didn’t work, and by now he’s probably calling the cops or writing down my license plate number.

So, we drive off. I find a place to park where the road is closest to the track. I look around to see if I’m being watched and I walk over with a pound of my dad’s ashes in a bag, reach my hands through the fence and dump them on the grass right next to the track.

The wind will pick up and carry the ashes right onto the track, and maybe they’ll get picked up in some horse’s hooves and be taken right across the finish line. Hopefully they’ll be with the winning horse.

I breathe a sigh of relief that I finally accomplished what I’ve been thinking about for seven years. All is well in the universe.

Rest in peace, Dad.

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