odd time signatures

A Proper Obituary For My Father

Equitable Insurance PhotoThis is for my dad, Robert Ronald Hayes…born January 28, 1932, died August 16, 2008

The obituary in the paper is three lines long and inaccurate. It reads:

Robert Ronald Hayes, 78, a probation officer, of Las Vegas, died Aug. 16, 2008. He is survived by his son, Patrick McSweeney of Las Vegas. No services scheduled.

The Vital Statistics

dad-with-parents-1970This will set the record straight for anyone who might care. Both as to the vital statistics and as to who he was.

Robert Ronald Hayes was born in Huntington Park, CA on January 28, 1932 to Charles G. Hayes, lifelong Southern Pacific employee, and Mildred Marion Hayes, secretary and stenographer. He graduated from Eagle Rock High School in 1950 and from Occidental College in 1954. He worked for Equitable Life Assurance Company of America before becoming a juvenile probation officer for the County of Los Angeles, where he spent the rest of his career before retiring in 1982.

He is survived by sons Lee and Patrick, and daughter Karoli.

Who he was

I have written in the past about his negative characteristics. I am not going to do that now. Instead, I’m going to paint a picture of the glimmers I saw of who he wanted to be, when he wasn’t battling his own demons. Whether or not he was perfect or flawed, he was my dad, and his influence shaped me through my formative years.

My dad was a mass of contradictions wrapped in a mercurial cloak. He could float or sink, depending on his mood. He loved to write, studied journalism in high school and college, but for some reason chose not to pursue it. Somewhere I have some short stories and poetry that he wrote that’s not bad, some of it laced with sardonic humor with a bit of an edge.

Capturing the smileHe was also a photographer, and as painful as it was to be his subject (because he was a real perfectionist who took forever to get the shot), he always caught us at the point where we showed him that little smile, light in our eyes, grin that flashed and was gone. This is me, at about three or four…the next is my brother on the beach. I love the way he caught the umbrella, the shadow, and of course, my brother’s baby joy at digging in the warm sand at Cardiff beach.Capturing the moment

He was a good photographer. He had a good eye. He sometimes took really bizarre risks, like standing on the side of the road in South Dakota, determined to take a picture of buffalo roaming, despite the tendency of the ones we were near to charge. I can remember sitting in the car wondering how long it would be before they noticed him standing there and took after him. Or sinking into the eroding earth of the Badlands, while I was convinced he was going to be swallowed by the weird, barren landscape.

Assumed AdonisIf you were to ask anyone, friend or family alike, where he felt most at home, I think we would all answer that the beach was his native habitat, at least in his earlier years. He was vain, loved the California blonde and tanned look, and nurtured it carefully until he was diagnosed with skin cancer at a young age, lost most of his hair from sun damage, and had to resign himself to the reality that being a sun god had a price here in the land of sun, ocean and perpetual summer.

In his later years, he preferred the desert and mountains, settling in the Cathedral City area, then Big Bear Lake, and finally, Las Vegas (or so I’m told).

Las Vegas was always a favorite place of his. He loved the rush of the city, the lights, the momentum. I can remember going with him when I was around 14, and seeing Diana Ross from the front row at Caesar’s Palace after he managed to talk our way in there…still don’t know how he pulled that off.

I was lucky in many ways, but probably most particularly in this: to the extent he was able to care about others, he did for me.  My brother and mother can’t make that claim — he was awful to them. But to me, he was mostly good for the time that we inhabited the same space. There were some terrible moments, but mostly they weren’t terrible.

There were moments when he taught me to think, taught me to listen, taught me to open my mind.  He took me to plays that were much too avant garde for my friends at the time, took me to hear music that was entirely different from the bubble gum stuff played on the radio, and scared me straight about drugs, alcohol and any other vice that might capture me in those high school years.  (To this day I remain convinced that if I had so much as looked at a joint he would jump out of the shadows and bust me…)

What I remember the most is the music. Though my grandmother told me he was quite a musician (trumpet player) in his younger day, I never saw him pick up any instrument but the occasional percussion instrument held on the shelf as a memento from a trip to Baja. Yet I know that he took piano lessons for many years and did play trumpet until he went to college. Though he didn’t choose to continue playing, the one passion he always had was for music, and in particular, jazz.

If one of the greats released a new album, he had it the day it came out. His collection was huge, and he would play through it end to end. It makes me wonder if he had an iPod, or if he still loved the music as much as he did then. He and my mom would go hear artists at the Baked Potato and Shelley Manne’s place, and on special occasions, they’d take me. Jazz was his passion, it was what he woke up to in the morning and fell asleep to at night. He went to jazz festivals all over the state — Monterey and Newport Beach, and when concerts were free at the then-Pilgrimage theater (now John Anson Ford theater), we’d go on Sunday afternoons and hear whoever was on the stage that day.

I didn’t know what I was seeing until many years later. Many years.

If I have one regret, it is that he never knew that his grandson was studying jazz, to be a jazz drummer, that that grandson studied and could play Buddy Rich like someone who had studied Buddy carefully, with much attention to the details. That on the day he died, that grandson debuted his first original piece, written for percussion and dedicated to his parents.

I am sad that he never knew his granddaughter with her flowing curly hair and blazing blue eyes, or his eldest grandson, who served in the military with honor.

Beyond sadness, reality. His passing was heralded by the creation of a generation of his making, a calling to music, to passion, to odd times and dissonant chords in a world where we’re born, live, ultimately die and maybe leave something behind in the form of a talent or gift for others.

Whatever his life, it deserves more than a one-line inaccurate obituary in a distant newspaper. There should be a record, a record that this man lived, had children, passions and flaws, and died on the day his grandson’s music was born. There is a certain symmetry there, a sense that the good that he did will live on in the form of children, notes and time, laughing on the sand.

So Dad, even though I didn’t say goodbye in the normal timing, I say it now, with fondness and affection for the good times, for the things you tried to do right and the acknowledgment in later years that the wrongs were, well…wrong. I say goodbye knowing that my own passion for the music began with you, and continues in your grandchildren, that your ability to write and photograph is something I carried away and refined in my own style, and that you were my father and I am your daughter.

Rest now, and I hope Miles played you over the bridge. We will remember you, and the music will play on.

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