The Gray Horse Cowboy Rides Into The Clouds

At 5:45PM today, my dear father-in-law, Jay Hatfield, passed away from complications due to lung cancer. He was 61 years old.

Over the past few weeks, Jay’s health had been steadily declining. He was too fragile to withstand more chemotherapy and radiation treatments, and the location of the tumor made it impossible to operate. Bedridden, medicated, hooked up to countless machines and unable to speak — it wasn’t what Jay wanted for himself. He wanted to go home. He’d smile bravely when we came to visit and say he wasn’t depressed — not that our stoic cowboy would ever tell us if he were — but we knew he didn’t want his last days to be in the sterile environment of an ICU.

Yesterday afternoon, a local hospice organization transported Jay back to the home he shared with his wife Sue in Aromas. They set up his bed in the living room by the window, and everyone could see that he was happy to be out of the hospital and surrounded once again by the familiar comforts of their place. His sister Marsha brought his favorite horse, Goblin, around the side of the house and up to the window. The hospice nurse, Cynthia, held up Jay’s hand so Goblin could say hello to his old friend. Then Jay slept for most of the day, sedated on medication to relieve his pain. Cynthia left at midnight, and Shawn kept vigil by his bedside and attended to his father until morning.

Shawn and his stepmother Sue were sitting beside Jay in the early evening when she said, “I wish Jay would say something.” At that moment, Jay opened his eyes for the first time since yesterday. His gaze was steady and strong, fixed in a piercing stare upwards. Jay’s breathing became slower and more labored until he fell silent. The gray cowboy tipped his hat to his loved ones and ventured up into the sky.

There have been many tears today and there will be many more over the next months and years. But through the tears will be the memories of his wry smile, his fiery temper, his gentle kindness and his abiding love for his friends, family and community. Thank you for your warm spirit, Jay, and may you rest in peace at last.


Jay was sleeping when I first walked into his hospital room this afternoon, so he was unaware that Shawn, Sue and I were all there. His brow was furrowed, as if he was uncomfortable and upset. Shawn sat down and gently massaged his left arm and hand, and the tense wrinkles in his forehead eventually began to relax, then melt away.

He was scheduled for some physical therapy, and the attending nurse turned off his medication so he’d be awake and lucid for his short exercise regimen. As Jay began to revive, I went over to his bedside to say hello. He surprised me by greeting me with a big, warm smile. During our previous visits, his face was often vacant, devoid of expression due to being in a hazy, medicated fog. But his smile lit up his entire face, and I saw the gray horse cowboy in that familiar grin.

His physical therapist arrived and she told him they were going to work on having him sit up for a minute or so. Jay’s eyes widened; no words were needed to express his dismay with the impending exercises. I glanced at Shawn, and I know he saw that anxious look as well. In the past few months, Shawn has become an expert at reading his father’s eyes or mouthed words to communicate with him. But he was stumped the other day when his dad whispered a request to him. “Are you trying to say the word ‘building’?” said Shawn. Jay shook his head. Shawn started pointing to letters of the alphabet on a notepad to see if his dad could help him spell out the word. The letter “M” garnered a nod, and he finally understood that his dad had been asking for a milkshake. Ah, of course — he should have known his dad was craving one of his favorite drinks.

Before the therapist showed up, Jay had already tried sitting up with Shawn’s help. Jay would hold Shawn’s hand and try to pull himself up away from the bed. Being bedridden had weakened him considerably, so even the smallest effort was tiring. And his arms were heavy and swollen with fluid, a side effect from the chemotherapy treatments. But he was able to lift both arms over his head much higher than the previous day. Yesterday, Jay could barely lift one arm off the covers, but he seemed restless and determined to do so. Shawn was unsure of what he wanted, but he propped up his dad’s arm on his own. Jay then reached up and proceeded to scratch his forehead. It was a reminder that it’s those little things that you take for granted, being able to scratch that one troublesome itch or easily move your pillow into the right place under your head just so.

As his therapist got him ready to sit up, I thought about all of the lifelines that were branching out of Jay’s body: one for food; one for medication; one to take away his waste; several to provide him with oxygen; countless others monitoring and maintaining his health. They had to move carefully to not disturb his network of lifelines. Healing is a delicate process and you have to move forward slowly with grace and deliberation.

Horses, Hugs and Healing

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My father-in-law, Jay Hatfield, aka the Gray Horse Cowboy, is still in the hospital undergoing treatments for his battle with lung cancer. We take each day as it comes. There are some days when there’s progress, and there’s other days when his situation poses more challenges. But Jay is still working hard as he always has — except now he’s working hard to tell his lung cancer that it has overstayed its welcome and it’s time to hit the road.

His wife and son, Shawn and Sue, along with several other friends and family members, regularly visit to keep his spirits high and to check in with the team of doctors that are doing their best to keep him on the road to recovery.

If there was only a way that his dogs and horses could sneak into his room to pay him a visit. I know they miss him – especially his favorite horse Goblin – and that Jay misses them as well. We’re hoping that he’ll be able to see them again soon in the near future if we can’t arrange a clandestine meeting. In the meantime, we’re sending him hugs through these photos.

And thank you to everyone who have contributed to Jay and Sue thus far. All of the messages and donations have meant so much to them.

The Gray Horse Cowboy Will Ride Again

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When I first met my father-in-law, Jay Hatfield, shortly after I started dating my future husband, I thought, “Well, now I know what Shawn will look like in 20 years’ time.”

Tall and lanky, both men tower over the average citizen. They also have the same ice-blue eyes that have earned the nickname “Blue Steel” due to their cool, piercing quality. Their default mode is intimidation, and one look from them can silence anyone that crosses their path and pisses them off (I’ve seen them in action, and I can guarantee that they came in handy to their predecessors during the Hatfield-McCoy feuding days).

And they’re both cowboys, except Shawn, The Bearded One, wears a thick salt-and-pepper beard and rides bikes while Jay sports a gray mustache and rides horses. Jay’s standard uniform — whether he’s relaxing or when he’s working as a farrier — is a button-down shirt with blue jeans and a leather belt and boots. He’s a close cousin to one of his cinematic heroes, John Wayne. Jay chooses his words carefully, won’t bullshit you and always says how he feels even if he might offend you. Sometimes his sense of humor is so dark and dry I can’t always tell when he’s trying to be funny (and often have the same problem with Shawn), but chances are, most of the time he’s cracking a joke.

I was reminded of his sardonic sense of humor when I recently visited Jay in the hospital. He was recovering from a tracheotomy, which he needed in order to breathe more freely. Diagnosed with lung cancer several weeks earlier, complications from the illness began to impact his airways. As we sat down at his bedside, Jay communicated with us by jotting things down and gesturing with hand signals. I joked that he’d be a master of Charades in no time, and he promptly flipped me the bird as a response with a wry half-smile.

But it’s sad and strange to see our cowboy at rest for the first time, lying in a hospital bed surrounded by machines and sterile beige walls. Jay was always beyond busy, a die-hard workaholic, up at dawn so that he could attend to his animals or other people’s animals or to look for structural engineering flaws with his other day job as a building inspector. It was only at the end of a long day that he’d kick back in his favorite easy chair in front of the TV to watch shows with his wife Sue.

When I think of Jay, I think of the pan of cheesy scalloped potatoes that he bakes for us every holiday. And of the super deluxe Hickory Farms gift baskets that he’d give us every Christmas because he thought we loved them even though we secretly hated them but could never say so. I think of his love for Philly Cheese steak burritos from a local Mexican restaurant and the Sunday breakfasts we’d share at the Moss Landing Cafe. I think of him cursing at his laptop, ready to hurl it out the window, because he hated computers but loved the Internet. I think of him liking my posts on Facebook, then joining Google+ when I migrated over so he could follow my stories. I think of how he used to be the impatient driver in the truck fuming at cyclists on the back country roads near where he lived until his son started biking in earnest. Then I think of him coming to watch us race at the Hellyer Velodrome after work, proud as can be. It’s hard for me to think of Jay in any other way than as the kind man who welcomed me into his family when Shawn and I married three years ago. The man in the hospital bed is just a placeholder for the cowboy I know.

In every life, there are regrets. Maybe he regrets the cigarettes he smoked, maybe there are other things he wished were different. But he had to live life on his own terms, with no looking back. This much I know. He’s stubborn, a trait that I’ve been accused of myself in the past (especially by own father). And I believe his stubbornness will get him through his nausea from the chemotherapy and radiation treatments and the frustration of being bedridden and the depression from being sick and worrying about his family and all of the other roadblocks his cancer is throwing at him.

We love you, Jay. Tell that cancer to kiss your ass so we can go get some real cheeseburgers and milkshakes, like you’ve been asking for.

If you’d like to help Jay and Sue Hatfield with their medical expenses, you can contribute here.