For a dying wordsmith, some lovingly crafted lines


LOS OSOS, Calif. — He led an active electronic life, so the cyber silence was ominous. No emails. No posts to any of the thousand-plus friends on Facebook. When word finally surfaced, it wasn’t from him.

“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 Jan. 12 posting by Dayle Hayes about her 88-year-old father, Jim, shows once more how the Internet has changed the American way of death. Last summer, NPR journalist Scott Simon live-tweeted his mother’s decline and eventual demise, captivating his million-plus followers. Online death announcements and memorial sites have become routine.


The announcement about Hayes spurred what amounts to an ongoing, real-time, interactive wake for a gregarious man in his final months. It has music, videos and testimonials that are remarkable, not just for what they say, but for how they say it.

Social media is best known for unfiltered communication, liberally sprinkled with LOLs, IMHOs and hackneyed emoticons. But Hayes’ electronic tribute is as grammatical as it is 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 generations of writers. Through the years, these men and women have worked for media outlets as varied as the New York Times, National Public Radio, the Billings (Mont.) Gazette and the Los Angeles Times.

In death, which creeps nearer every day, Hayes is bringing hundreds of people together online to do what mourners everywhere do — though generally in person and after the fact: Comfort one another in the face of loss. Celebrate a life well lived. Reconnect.

But Hayes was a teacher first and foremost, so the conversation unfolding on his two 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.”

Each day, new posts come in. Each day, if Hayes is up for it, family members read them aloud.

The Jan. 19 note from former student Liz Currie is one of Ellen Hayes’ favorites, she said not long after her husband of nearly 50 years entered hospice care, probably because it is one of the few she has been able to read aloud without dissolving into tears.

The entry is equal parts rueful and funny and underscores one of Hayes’ cardinal rules: A misspelled word or a butchered name earned a story an automatic “F,” scrawled in red across the top of the page.

“I don’t think I had ever received an ‘F’ before enrolling in my first class with Jim Hayes,” Currie wrote. “After receiving a series of F’s on assignments due to carelessness, I was determined to prove to Mr. Hayes that I could meet his standards.”

Before handing in her next assignment, Currie double- and triple-checked each word. But when the story came back, it was marked with what she described as “the dreaded ‘See me.’ ”

“I marched into his office, where he burst out laughing and handed me a bag of potato chips,” she wrote. “In my effort to be clever in the piece, I had worked in a Mother Goose reference but instead of typing ‘Mother Goose,’ I had typed ‘Granny Goose.’ Perhaps I had been hungry at the time.”

Although the crimson marks have become a badge of honor, Hayes’ students learned about much more than just spelling, as Susan Oto wrote last month.

“Mr. Hayes told me to check your facts,” Oto 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?”

Just over a year ago, Hayes came down with norovirus, a gastrointestinal ailment. When his temperature rose sharply, son Jason, who lives with his parents, raced him to the emergency room. Unrelated but even more serious problems were 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.”

But early this year, Hayes fell down — more than once. On Jan. 11, he awoke disoriented. Middle son Josh, a hospice nurse who lives in Oakland, counseled a return to the emergency room. 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, stalked invisible prey on the balcony outside his bedroom window. The Santa Lucia Mountains were obscured by haze. The room was quiet, except for Hayes’ raspy, difficult breathing.

He talked about the best writers he has known, colleagues, friends, the men and women he mentored. About the mark of a good story.

“If it makes you cry once,” he said, “it’s good. If it makes you cry twice, it’s great.”