The following are words I wrote -- and managed to deliver only partially last May -- in memory of my brother (technically, my half-brother, but nothing 'half' about him), Thomas Richard Hayes, who died on this day one year ago. The names won't matter to you; the emotions will. My apologies if this is an imposition. Thanks for listening, if you choose to read.
Requiescat in pace.
Anyone here who knew Richard, or Tom, even casually, knows that he is the one in the photograph with the easy smile, he is the one with the ready laugh, and he is the one with the gentle manner, the easy touch. That we know. And that we honor and celebrate today. Before going any further, thank you, Beverly and Laurie, for asking me to share these few words, however difficult it may be.
He was a good man: a steady worker, a devoted husband and father, a caring son, a faithful friend. But for me, most of all, he was my brother. And since he was so much older than me, I idolized him. When he left, around 1955, to go to the Air Force, we missed him then, as we do now. And so did a squirrel he had befriended, a squirrel he apparently had taken to feeding. These many years later, I can still see that squirrel scampering up to our second-floor apartment on Oak Street, scratching at the door, somewhat angry and confused, missing his treat, missing Richard, wondering, Where did he go?
He went to places like Bellevue, Illinois; Baudette, Minnesota; Madison, Wisconsin; Wyoming; and Japan. And he wrote handwritten letters to me, little treasures that came in special red, white, and blue airmail envelopes. Nothing more extraordinary than a retelling of his day, and asking about his little brother. One hot summer night, we heard a tap at the door at our home on Myano Lane. Richard was home! An unexpected leave. He had driven all day or all night, or both, to thrill us with a visit. Home--only to leave again, some 30 days later.
If I recall correctly, when I was in Fourth Grade, Richard was in Japan. Sapporo, I think. His being there inspired me to study all about that land and its people and its customs. I probably knew more about Mount Fuji than anyone else in class. Richard sent us chinaware from Japan (why do they call it china?), and a beautiful ornamental doll with jet-black hair held by a comb. The doll still stands in a glass case in Mom’s bedroom. And he sent Jack and me these real cool reversible jackets, silk on one side and velour on another; mine was decorated with a fierce-looking dragon. Very cool. Plus he gave me a little military reflector mirror for signaling to rescuers. I’m sure I annoyed everyone around with it. I treasured it.
Fast forward many, many years, and I was to learn that Richard’s greatest gift to me (and to so many of us) was yet to come. I am not a golfer. Richard was. One Monday afternoon, early last November, as his days were dwindling down like the crisp sparkling leaves falling from the trees up North, we spent, an hour or two at a driving range not far from his beloved Florida home. I believe it was Beverly’s or Laurie’s clubs I used, no less. The sun beat down on us. We both wore straw hats. He was too weak to play. He sat on a nearby bench and what did he do? He mentored me, encouraged me, nurtured me. Try this club, now this one. No, you did all right. That’s good. Your’re doing fine. No, that’s okay. That’s better. A little slower. There you go. Now try this. There you go.
And he took a few snapshots of that snapshot of our lives, and I of him, we with our straw hats, our shorts, our smiles. Our perfect moment in the sun. And so, in death as in life, there was Richard, Tom, as always, ever kind and gentle, patient and loving, easygoing and comfortable. Uncomplaining. Grateful. Our moment in the sun. Literally and truly, who could ask for anything more? Where could I buy such a precious gift? And so, like a young airman leaving in the middle of the night, I bade my brother goodbye in the early November morning, the following day. We knew it was goodbye for now, as he rested his head on the pillow covering his childhood prayer book, as I told him I loved him, and in my heart thanked him for this great lesson, this final gift. The gift was this: be not afraid, it’s okay, there you go. He taught us how to die with grace and serenity, just as he had lived. And for that we are all here to thank him today.
I confess I am like that squirrel long ago, scratching at the screen, angrily or sadly wondering where our Richard, our Tom, has gone to. Perhaps the answer is in the Gospel of John from this year’s Easter reading. Mary Magdalene is at the empty tomb. She, like us, is weeping. Twice, an unrecognized Jesus says to her, “Why are you weeping?” In her grief, she does not recognize him. Then he says her name. It clicks. She gets it. She recognizes him. “Teacher!” she exclaims. And, for me, the teacher who taught me how to whack golf balls on a Monday afternoon, he himself shone with the light of that same Teacher recognized near the empty tomb. And the lessons are the same:
“What falls away is always. And is near.”
“…we saw / The God within him light his face…”
“…redeemed from death, and grief, and pain, / I soon shall find my friend again / Within the arms of God.
John 20: 13-15
John 20: 17
Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”
Alfred, Lord Tennyson, “In Memoriam A.H.H.”
Charles Wesley, “If Death My Friend and Me Divide”