Monday, March 31, 2014

A Dying Wordsmith’s Last Words.

Jim Hayes, 88, has been an editor, professor and writing coach who instilled in his students an insistence on accuracy and an appreciation for storytelling. Now they are using their skills to write about him.

Jim led an active electronic life, so the sudden cyber silence was worrying. No emails. No posts on Facebook. No tweeting. No updates on LinkedIn. When word finally surfaced, it wasn't from him.

Jim Hayes for whom words never failed.

"If you have noticed Jim's absence from Facebook, there is a reason. He has been doing poorly for a week or so ... and yesterday they detected a mass in his brain. Having elected to have no extraordinary medical measures, he is at home in Los Osos and we are waiting for hospice to come."

The Facebook posting by Dayle Hayes about her 88-year-old father, Jim, is a perfect example of how the Internet has changed the American way of death. Online death announcements and Facebook memorial sites have become routine.

Hayes inspires an interactive memorial online.

The announcement about Hayes spurred an interactive memorial for an extraordinary man in his final months. It has music, videos and testimonials that are remarkable, not just for what they say, but for they are expressed.

Social media is best known for unfiltered communication of all types. Hayes' electronic tribute was as grammatical as it was heartfelt. Words are spelled correctly. Facts are checked. Sentences and thoughts are cogent and complete.

In life, Hayes was an editor, a professor and a coach who nurtured thousands of writers. Through the years, these men and women have worked for media outlets as varied as the New York Times, National Public Radio and the Los Angeles Times.

In death, which was approaching nearer every day, Hayes brought hundreds of people together online to do what mourners everywhere do —Comfort one another in the face of loss. Celebrate a life well lived. Reconnect. While he was till alive.

Hayes taught until the very end.

Hayes was a teacher first and foremost, so the conversation unfolding on his Facebook pages is also about the lessons that changed his grateful students' lives: How to write. How to think. How to tell a good story. And how to be a human being, even while writing about horrific events under the pressure of deadline.

As one former student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo put it: "During one of your classes … while we were reviewing coverage of some current disaster, you had us pass around a list of the victims and read off the names of the dead. The lesson — to think and feel beyond the body count — stuck with me from there forward."

Every day, new posts came in and family members read them aloud.

"Mr. Hayes told me to check your facts," one former student wrote. "Always. Because some people really do spell their name 'Joens.' If you can't get that right, why should anybody trust you to get the school board budget right or what the police say the guy did or what the farmer really did say about his crops?"

Hayes’ health started to decline a year ago.

About a year ago, Hayes came down with norovirus, a serious gastrointestinal ailment. When his temperature rose sharply, his son Jason, who lives with his parents, raced him to the emergency room. More serious problems were soon detected.

"CT scan found nodules on my lungs, but I rebelled at a biopsy," Hayes explained in a Facebook exchange three months later. "Too risky for a weak 87-year-old, and besides, if they found malignancy, I would have rejected surgery, chemo and radiation.

"Aggressive treatment is for the young," Hayes continued. "I've had a long, joyful ride and hope to exit smiling. Don't expect to read my obit any time soon; I have much to do."

Hayes leaves a legacy of writers behind.
But early this year, Hayes fell down and became disoriented. It was discovered that the nodules had grown and spread to Hayes' frontal lobe.

And now the family waits, making him comfortable, sharing the latest thank-yous that pour in.

Bodhi, one of Hayes' cats, keeps guard outside his bedroom window. The Santa Lucia Mountains are obscured by haze. The room is eerily quiet, except for Hayes' raspy, difficult breathing. The end is near.

Jim talked about the best writers he has known, colleagues, friends, the men and women he mentored. He discussed the elements of a good story. He is quiet now.

"If it makes you cry once," he said, "it's good. If it makes you cry twice, it's great."

We’re going to cry twice, Jim. 
Thanks for the lessons.

Nancy Burban 2014

Funeral fund

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