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During the last months, weeks and days of the life of Hays Johnson, during that hard time of his illness, he was not dying. He was living. This may seem to be a matter of semantics or playing with words, but I learned from him during that period a lesson which I had previously only perceived in a fragmentary fashion. When a newborn utters its first loud wail, a sound which touches the hearts of the bystanders, it is perhaps an expression of regret that its stay in this beautiful world is temporary. Perhaps the baby knows what we often forget, that we are all ultimately terminal. I do not think for one moment that in his last days on earth Hays was in a state of denial or rationalization. He knew how sick he was. But he was determined to take the advice of the song:
I'm gonna live, live, live until I die.
With one important difference. The implication of the song is that one should take from life whatever one can grab before it is too late. Hays wanted to give whatever he could, and it did not matter to him whether his life stretched before him for decades or for hours, he was going to be one and the same, a person who held fast to his integrity, who had a deep interest in everything going on around him, who wanted to be quietly involved, who wanted to contribute in whatever way he could.
There was to be a meeting at the synagogue a few weeks ago. He said to me: "I won't be able to make the meeting, but I should like to know your thoughts on it, and I would like to hear what happens." It was not a dying man who could not make that meeting, it was a man who was fully alive, who, if he was impeded by circumstances from doing what he wished, could yet find ways of taking part. Just one week ago I spoke to him on the phone. He wanted to know what I was doing, and on Monday, as I promised, I put in the mail for him the text of some lectures that he wanted to see. He spoke little of sickness or discomfort, and was as pleasant and cheerful as always. It was fun to talk to him, a man a week away from a long anticipated death.
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"Eulogy for Son." 123HelpMe.com. 18 Aug 2018
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Hays was a wonderful listener. His most characteristic utterance was uh-huh. This struck me, I suppose, because, as a child, I was taught to avoid this particular locution, and it shook me a little when I found him using it. He rehabilitated it for me, for he used it to say: I'm listening, and it constituted for him the least interruption he could make. He did not like to disturb the flow of a person's thoughts, and when someone was speaking he gave all his attention. He made everyone he came into contact with feel important, because he gave the sense that he valued the input of even the least person in the world, and as such he was a truly humble man, because he believed in the worth of others, and saw no reason for placing himself above them.
Hays was blessed with a devoted family who were fully cognizant of his unusual qualities. In turn he was a wonderful son and brother, husband and father, grandfather. The anguish he felt at the loss of a precious child did not bend the spirit that he inherited from a long line of strong people. He mourned, took comfort in his faith and in the support of those close to him -- and he continued his life. Preeminent among these was his wife Ginny, who ministered to him at the end, as always, with compassion, humor, and, above all, love. He worked hard and faithfully throughout his life, and appreciated the consideration and respect he earned from his colleagues.
Hays was devoted to his synagogue. As he stood or sat there meditatively, he looked as totally integrated into his surrounding as the holy scrolls in the ark. He belonged. It was his signature on the synagogue letterhead that certified to the U.S. consul in Liverpool that I had a post in Philadelphia, and persuaded him to issue a visa, no little thing in those McCarthy days. Thirty-five years connect then and now, and in all that time my family and I have treasured our association with this special human being. Some weeks ago Nita told him that he was one of her favorite people, and knowing that she is truthful in all things, Hays appreciated her comment. Things like that, small tokens of the regard in which he was held were sufficient reward for him. He did not look to tear the world apart and reshape it in his own image. He was content to leave it a little better than he found it, by his concern, his attentiveness, and the feeling for the right way that he inspired in others. He had uprightness, honesty and sincerity. It is by those qualities that we shall remember him, and through them he will continue to influence us for good.