The Gray Horse Cowboy Will Ride Again

jay and goblin

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.