In the surreal waves of grief’s early days, remembering Dad
A daughter’s journey through tasks, memories and questions in the strange first week of loss.
Columnist Stephanie Hayes and her dad, Bill Hayes, at her wedding at Tampa Theatre on Sept. 4, 2017.
Columnist Stephanie Hayes and her dad, Bill Hayes, at her wedding at Tampa Theatre on Sept. 4, 2017. [ Simply Blue Studios ]
Published Nov. 22, 2023|Updated Nov. 22, 2023

I am wandering under the sallow lighting of the mall. I’m wearing mismatched clothing, no makeup, hair whatever. I am looking for something. What?

A dress. I need a dress to wear to a thing. It seems silly to be shopping during 40 hours of bereavement. Then I feel bad about feeling bad. And then I feel bad for the original reason. It’s a stew of badness between Dillard’s and the Cinnabon.

That’s when I hear my name. It’s a couple I know, but not well. Not social media-well. Social media, for its obvious pitfalls, offers a marvelous gift in troubling times. Social media lets you tell a lot of people major news without having to speak to anyone.

They ask how I am.

Whenever restaurant servers asked my dad how he was, he’d say, “Fat and ugly.” When they said, “Have a good day,” he’d say, “Don’t tell me how to live.”

“Good,” I tell the couple. “Actually, not good. My dad died two days ago. Just to be honest.”

• • •

Take all the time you need, people say, but that time off work is 40 hours. A generous amount as far as policies go, but it nonetheless feels like starting a term paper the night before it’s due.

• • •

I sit with my family in the hospital cafeteria the morning of his death, faces dried with a crust of tears.

His name was Bill. He was 76 and in failing health, hospitalized four times since September with gallbladder issues, heart issues, issues, issues, issues, new ones forming each time one eased.

My parents don’t have detailed death arrangements, not like the generation before them. We settle on the nicest funeral home near my parents’ house. I call, clutching a too-sweet coffee in Styrofoam. The funeral director answers with her name.

“This is Heaven,” she says.

That night, I go to Publix. It turns out you still go to Publix when people die.

The phone buzzes near the meat. His body has arrived at the funeral home.

“This is Heaven,” she says. “I’m just calling to let you know he’s in our care.”

Columnist Stephanie Hayes and her dad, Bill Hayes, together in Florida in 1995.
Columnist Stephanie Hayes and her dad, Bill Hayes, together in Florida in 1995. [ Courtesy of Hayes family ]
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• • •

I’m 40. I’ve lost all my grandparents. I’ve comforted partners who lost close family members. But I’ve never lost the person I am most similar to in matters of DNA and otherwise. This moment comes for everyone.

• • •

Heaven emails.

She wants to know his hobbies so the team at the funeral home can decorate.

I explain that my dad did not relate to the Paternal Ephemera one might find on a Father’s Day display. No sports. No grilling. No tools. No beer. No recliners. No fishing poles.

He liked to be with my mom, driving, lunching, reading funny paperbacks in the food court while she shopped. They were married 54 years. He put the ring around a stick of Dentyne, and when he offered her the pack, she said no thanks.

They were really married. I mean it. They actually liked each other.

Bill and Mickie Hayes at their wedding in Lorain, Ohio, on Sept. 26, 1969.
Bill and Mickie Hayes at their wedding in Lorain, Ohio, on Sept. 26, 1969. [ Courtesy of Hayes family ]

He liked being a respiratory therapist until he hurt his back on the job and had to retire. He died in the same hospital where he worked for decades, his colleagues dipping in and out of the ICU, trying to revive their friend until his last breath.

He was deeply funny. My cousins kept a running list of things he would mutter at family functions, for example: “That baby smiled at me. She must have problems.”

Given his warped view of the world and lack of interest in almost any commodified activities, Dad was impossible to buy presents for. I chose to ply him with nonsense gifts. A brass pig. Frog figurines. Novelty socks. “The Field Guide to Dumb Birds of North America.”

He liked diets. It sounds weird, but it’s true. He liked to read articles and watch videos about supplements and vitamins and carbohydrates. He was always cutting something out, adding something in, trying to move the levers of his own raw-deal genetics.

When I was about 14, he got pale and sweaty at my grandmother’s kitchen table. Not long after, he was in open-heart surgery. Six bypasses. Sextuple. That’s as intricate as it gets. It’s incredible he had so many more years.

I hate dieting, with all the societal cancer it carries. A few years back, I swore I’d never do it again, that I’d let my body be what it would be. But in the weeks before his death, I found myself only eating salmon and beans and zucchini, reading articles and watching videos.

I got his hooded eyes and stunning ankles (we joked) and spiky eyebrows and arid humor. But the numbers show I also got my dad’s heart. It’s a good heart, OK? The best heart. But it’s not a good heart.

Columnist Stephanie Hayes learns guitar chords from her dad, Bill Hayes, in 1996.
Columnist Stephanie Hayes learns guitar chords from her dad, Bill Hayes, in 1996. [ Courtesy of Hayes family ]
• • •

We sit at a round table in the funeral home, which smells pleasant and looks pleasant, flipping through a mounted TV slideshow of expensive accouterments. The process feels clinical, disembodied, like shopping for holiday gifts online or ordering appetizers on UberEats.

Prayer card or folded program? Cross motif? Angel wings? Which psalm? Sunflowers or roses? The printer wants 950x1180 resolution. Our favorite photo is too small. Urns. They make an urn now that dissolves in water. One is made of Himalayan pink salt.

We tour the cemetery on a golf cart. I am having a strangely good time. The weather is beautiful. We talk about different types of marble and granite, benches, columns, niches, how many ashen remains each receptacle holds. We drive past the ostentatious plots of rich people who will lie together forever in wealth. It all seems pretend, like a game of deceased dress-up. A cartoon graveyard.

Obit. Slideshow. Croissant sandwiches. Cookies. Veggies and dill dip are extra. I hate dill.

Death certificates. How many? There’s a short version and a long version, and different agencies want different types. We decide.

“Three longs and two shorts,” Heaven says.

My mom freezes. This is what my dad used to tell us kids in the car when we asked, “How long until we get there?”

“Two shorts and a long,” he’d say. “Four longs and two shorts. Three longs and two shorts.”

Columnist Stephanie Hayes, front left, with her dad, Bill Hayes, mom, Mickie Hayes, and brother, Jeremy Hayes, in the late 1980s.
Columnist Stephanie Hayes, front left, with her dad, Bill Hayes, mom, Mickie Hayes, and brother, Jeremy Hayes, in the late 1980s. [ Courtesy of Hayes family ]
• • •

Did I do enough? Did he know I loved him? Did I pull too far into my own life? Isn’t that the point? Is he actually saying hello with these little signs, or am I grasping? Do the dead see you all the time? I should Google that. Is this grief, or is this just feeling awful about things you can’t possibly know or change? What’s the difference?

• • •

I need a dress for the thing. It’s a gala, I have tickets, and Dad would think it’s stupid not to go. Pointless to sit at home and be sad.

He’d get the inclination to detach, though, I think. We were both Geminis, all-or-nothing personalities, either dazzling crowds who find us utterly charming or stolen away in solitude.

When I am sad, I don’t want to see anyone. I don’t want advice. I don’t want to talk on the phone. I don’t want company. I want to melt into the couch. I want to drive around and listen to music that will make me miserable.

Once, in the throes of a bad breakup, I went radio silent to my family. After a few days, my dad was the one who called. He knew I needed to be alone. But, he said, call your mom today and let her know you are alive.

• • •

I need a dress for the thing. I hate everything. I either look like a politician or a cheap Beyoncé impersonator. I find a dress in TJ Maxx. I like the color. It fits. I can picture leaving the house in it.

We were not a gushy pair, my dad and I. We didn’t have Daddy’s Little Girl moments, no butterfly kisses, no “blink and you’ll miss it” posts. One time, he looked at my ballet flats and said, “Oh no, Steph’s becoming a woman who wears sensible shoes.” One time, I got a new haircut, and he said, “You look fine.”

“You look fine,” he would say now, and give me a peck on the head.

• • •

Take all the time you need.

What if all the time you need is forever? Little bits of forever?

• • •

Six years ago, my dad was beset with nerves about our dance at my wedding. Ever since his back injury, moving around presented a struggle.

No problem, I said. We can sit and do a lip sync to “You Can Call Me Al” by Paul Simon. The people will love it. That song was always a favorite of his for its silly turns of phrase.

If you’ll be my bodyguard, I can be your long lost pal. I can call you Betty, and Betty when you call me, you can call me Al.

In the years following the wedding — a smash, by the way — I became somewhat obsessed with the lyrics as they concerned my dad. I don’t think he ever knew this. Though the song seems like a goofy little yarn, it’s the story of a man’s midlife crisis and quest for spiritual meaning.

I need a photo opportunity. I want a shot at redemption. Don’t want to end up a cartoon in a cartoon graveyard.

We are Catholic. I would call myself culturally Catholic, comforted by certain aspects of our traditions. My dad’s relationship to the formality of church always seemed tenuous, too, a bit on the skeptical side. He’d lean in during Mass and crack jokes. Peas and carrots be with you, that kind of thing. I remember us replacing the words in church songs with “pork,” just to be idiotic.

On one hospital visit this year, he urgently reached for me. He was more emotional than usual. He told me about his two guardian angels. He told me their names, offering delicious cinematic details about their heavenly proportions. He told me about times they had protected him, given him friendship and second chances.

He is on a lot of drugs, I thought. Which was true.

But later, I corroborated the story with my mom. He’d been talking about his angels for some time. They were not a fever dream, but rather, as real to him as the adjustable bed and the bland hospital food and the Hallmark Christmas movies on the TV.

He looks around, around. He sees angels in the architecture.

At the end of the song, the man finds a sort of freedom. Relief. Revelation. His mysterious third verse. I picture my dad moving without a bad heart and a bad back and the bad insides and the canes and the walkers and the new wheelchairs he never got to use at home, the wheelchairs I returned to Amazon, sitting on hold with a representative trying to explain that he died, he died, he cannot use the products, please, just take them back. When I listen to the song, my dad is free and silly and happy, and he has finally arrived at the place he knew he was heading.

Spinning in infinity, he says “Amen,” and “Hallelujah.”

• • •

I drive alone to the funeral.

I play the song in the car and weep. It’s the only surefire way I know to force — or maybe exorcise — grief in pockets. Grief in small places. Grief in 40 hours. I gather myself and go inside. It’s showtime for both of us, my dad and me.

The room is beautiful, tables draped in yellow cloth, dill dip ready, puffy clouds cast on the walls. My mom brings silk sunflowers he surprised her with, before the hospital. He was too weak to go out, so he ordered a bouquet online.

Heaven gives us the final paperwork.

He will be cremated, but the service is open casket. He’s there at the front in his blue checked shirt and jeans with his glasses on. The professionals have made him look peaceful, and it’s a more soothing final image than that last time in the hospital.

But he’s not there, not in that casket, and I know it. Where is he? He’s spinning, spinning, spinning, so I spin around, too, and face the world as it starts to trickle in.

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