If you didn’t know our family and saw my dad and I standing in close proximity, you never would never have guessed he and I were related, let alone father and son. We were different people in many ways. He was tall, light-skinned, and thin. I’m a bubba, Husky-sized, dark, and strong. He was 100% engineer. I was 100% life sciences.
(True story to illustrate our differences. Once, my sister’s dog died after being hit by a car, he put my sister’s dog into a Joe Hays sealed plastic trash bag. Me, the biologist, tried to explain decomposition and why this was a bad idea. The engineer wouldn’t listen. Later in the day, when the trash bag started to…well, you can probably guess what happened, I silently enjoyed one of the few true “victories” I’d ever enjoy over my father. Biologist over Engineer for once.)
For all these outward differences, we are the same in the core. Honest. True. Headstrong. Resolute. Good friend/Terrible enemy. Faithful. Family. Problem-solving. Economic (and not just with money). Humorous. Plus many other things.
In late July of 2015, he was in the hospital for a last-ditch surgery to fix his stomach. It was my turn to go to KC and help my mom and siblings. Looking back, the times I got to spend with him one on one over that summer when he was hospitalized were a gift. You don’t get much one on one time in a big family, one of the very few drawbacks of a big family, so it was special.
When I arrived at the hospital, it was transfer day. A medical transport service was scheduled to pick Dad up and take him two blocks away to the rehabilitation clinic where he’d been for most of the summer. I have to admit, Dad looked rough. He was already weak from not being able to eat for a while and the surgery to implant a feeding tube took a deep toll on him.
During the move out of the hospital, I did the best I could to help the driver. We got Dad moved and set up in his room at the rehab center. The driver left and I thank him. He tells me he’ll leave the wheelchair there and the hospital will pick it up later. Dad settled in and I sat down. We talked for a few minutes before he fell asleep. One of the wonderful rehab center nurses came into the room, checked Dad’s charts, and then noticed me sitting in the corner. She took a quick look at the wheelchair, looked back at me, and said, “We got him from here. It’s okay to leave now.”
I stared back at her in complete confusion. I looked at the wheelchair. I looked back at the nurse. Then just about the time she is ready to call security, it dawned on me.
She thinks I’m the guy from the medical transport company.
She thinks I’m hanging around for a tip or something. I immediately break out in a huge smile. “I’m one of Joe’s sons.” I get up and shake her hand. “I’m Mike. The fourth kid.”
Her 100% badass, this-is-my-patient-and-you-better-not-mess-with-him facade broke into shock and embarrassment. “I’m so sorry. I didn’t know. I thought you were the—” She pointed at the wheelchair. Long story short, she apologized and I told her it was no big deal because it happened all the time.
I had forgotten about it over the next few days of sitting with Dad in the room.
Dad died five-years-ago today. August 1, 2015. It was a Saturday. As sad as we are, our family was lucky. We got bonus time on Earth with him. Dad almost died of esophageal and stomach cancer in 1986. He had a large portion of his stomach and several inches of esophagus removed in a sort of crude surgical solution to a desperate situation. He made the most of these almost thirty bonus years. We were lucky to have this extra time. My only regret is he didn’t get to meet my grandson. Dad was an awesome grandpa. He and my grandson would have hit it off royally.
My Uncle Ed was a priest and presided over the funeral. He called the Sunday after Dad died and asked if I’d talk at the funeral. I immediately envisioned how mad my Dad would be to have someone stand up and deliver a eulogy for him. Besides, I told my uncle, nobody wants to see a 250-lb man become a blubbering pile of emotional goo on the altar of his dad’s funeral. Anyway, Uncle Ed’s homily, where he worked in the Judgement of Osiris, was the most spectacular way anyone could have remembered my dad. It was the perfect match for the event where people came from all over to honor Joseph Hays.
One of the best parts of the funeral for me was when that nurse from the rehab center came through the family receiving line at the front of the church. First of all, how awesome it was for these busy nurses to take time from their schedule to pay their respects to dad? When she came through, she apologized again and we told everyone the story about how she confused me with the transport worker. The assembled in the church pews must have thought we were all crazy as we laughed about the mistake. This laughter and the shared stories from the people Dad touched in his life was the perfect eulogy. Nothing any one of us kids could have said would have wielded the power of memory and tribute like the people who gathered, either in person or in spirit, at Christ The King church that August morning. Mom, his two brothers, us six kids, our spouses, his beloved grandchildren and great-grandchildren, friends, coworkers, friends of us kids, and caregivers were the true eulogy to Dad.
That is perhaps the finest lesson I learned from my father. The final lesson he left us.
The power in a well-lived life is not what you take with you; it’s what you leave behind.
(NOTE: Now that I might be past the 250-lb blubbering son stage, I’m writing a few memorial pieces about my Dad to celebrate his life. With each piece, I’ll try to post a picture that helps tell the story of who he was. Most of the time, the actual monetary value of these things is nothing. The memory value, however, is priceless.)
This picture is of a wooden goalpost Dad made for us when we were kids. We loved playing paper football on the living room table. We fought a lot while playing. The recurring argument that usually resolved into a full-out brawl across the living room carpet, was cheating (mostly by Tim Hays) making a goal post for the opponent with your fingers. One could slightly adjust the width of your goal and/or slightly move it before, during, or after someone “kicked” a field goal or extra point.
They say that necessity is the mother of invention so Dad invented. With six kids within a dozen years of each other, we can say that he invented often. A piece of plank board, some dowel rod, felt on the bottom to avoid scratching Mom’s coffee table, and a few hours work yielded virtual fight-free hours of paper football joy for the Hays Boys.
That’s who my dad was.