Harold Hayes's Widow Recalls the Valiant Last Days of a Writer Who Was Racing Death to Finish His Book

updated 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/10/1990 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When Harold Hayes died from a brain tumor at age 62 last year, he was at work on a captivating biography of Dian Fossey, the fiercely dedicated, half-mad primatologist who was murdered in Rwanda in 1985. Fascinated by this complicated woman, Hayes, the influential editor of Esquire from 1963 to 1973, left his subsequent job at the helm of California magazine and headed to Africa to unearth her story. Published posthumously this summer, The Dark Romance of Dian Fossey has received high praise from critics. "Harold would have been very happy because the book was so important to him. It kept him going, "says Hayes's widow, Judy Kessler, 43, a PEOPLE writer in the 1970s and currently a producer with Norman Lear's ACT III Productions. "After Harold died it seemed that making sure the book was published, while dealing with my own grief, was an unbearable burden. Now I realize, that was what kept me together." Kessler is currently finishing her own book, Meet Me Where We Used to Be, a touching account of her last year with Hayes. "When Harold died," she says, "I was shattered and astounded at how unprepared we had been to handle all that had happened, but our love for each other has been a singular source of strength. He didn't live long enough, but he never wasted a second of the time he had." Kessler, who lives in Los Angeles, talked to associate editor Kristin McMurran about her final months with Hayes.

Jan. 18, 1988, was just another beautiful day for us in Los Angeles. Little did I suspect that before the night was over my life would be changed forever. The trouble began when Harold came home early from playing tennis. "The strangest thing happened to me on the court," he told me. "I was playing fine, and then I hit the ball and suddenly everything tilted." I was concerned, but tried to convince myself that he had been working too hard on his book. I fixed him a drink and made him lie down. When I came back to check on him 10 minutes later, I knew something was terribly wrong. He was trying to talk, but the words made no sense. His eyes were filled with fear. Terrified, I called 911. By the time the paramedics arrived just moments later, my husband—I loved him more than anything in the world—didn't even know who I was.

Later, in the emergency room, I was so desperate to communicate that I thought about getting onto the stretcher with him. Yet all I could do was stand and stare and pray. Nobody was paying enough attention to him. In the months to come I would learn that this was usually the way things were. Miraculously, Harold seemed fine the next morning. After a day of tests, the neurologist concluded that he had had a tiny stroke near his optic nerve. Considering the pressure he had been under, working night and day, juggling research compiled over two years in more than 200 interviews, trying to meet a publishing deadline, that seemed to be a reasonable diagnosis. He was exhausted, yet exhilarated. In all his years at Esquire, editing rich stories by gifted writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Michael Herr, no story had ever captivated him as much as had Dian Fossey's. It had everything: love, passion, sex, violence, murder, mystery, intrigue. It was touching, poignant and true.

His interest in Fossey began in 1986, after Harold read that she had been murdered at her research camp in Rwanda. He persuaded LIFE magazine to send him to Africa to find out what really happened. When he told me he was going, I was angry and jealous. I loved Africa too, and I didn't want to be separated from him. So I left my producing job at Entertainment Tonight and set off on what became the most exciting trip of my life.

The climb up the mountain to Fossey's camp was grueling. Starting at 10,000 feet, we gasped for breath as we slipped and slid in the gooey mud while dodging mosquitoes and stinging nettles. It took us nearly three hours, but the agony of the climb was erased when I looked up—sweat mixed with insect repellent dripping down my cheeks—to find myself face to face with a mother gorilla holding her baby and looking at me like I was crazy. That single moment gave me a new perspective. I understood then that humans are not necessarily the center of the universe, that all life has a value. I began to comprehend Dian Fossey's consuming obsession.

We were the last Westerners allowed into the camp before it was closed by local investigators. After spending a month in Africa we returned to Los Angeles, where Harold continued his research.

The more he dug into Fossey's past, the more he wanted to know. I would hear him making yet another phone call to someone who knew her, and I began to resent her. As the months passed, Harold was spending more time with her than with me. She became the "other woman." But this obsession with his subject would get him through the unexpected, difficult times ahead.

At the hospital, our doctors believed that Harold would recover completely. Elated, we headed home certain that there were no two people in the world as much in love as we were. For the first time in my career I was working at home—writing a treatment for an ABC pilot, glad to be able to watch over Harold. Then, as the weeks passed, he began feeling worse. Like a good reporter, he monitored every little change: shakiness, weakness, eye spasms, double vision, anything that might help determine what was going on. All of this made us nervous. Yet each time a doctor gave us a new explanation, we clung to it.

By June, however, Harold could not see well enough to read. After a third CAT scan we were reassured that nothing was wrong besides the expected aftermath of the stroke. Then another month of slow decline slipped by. Harold began wearing an eye patch, which helped his vision but upset me because it was a constant reminder that something was wrong. I was filled with trepidation but repressed it. Finally, in August, seven months after the first signs of trouble, we took all of Harold's tests to a new specialist who saw immediately that Harold had a brain tumor. There could be no prognosis until a biopsy was performed.

In one short sentence our lives were ruined. How had we gotten from a tiny stroke to a brain tumor? No one had mentioned that possibility. Harold didn't flinch at the news. He had always been able to achieve the unachievable because of his determination. The more hope he had, the harder he would fight, and I knew that would make a difference. That day, as we sat in our flower-filled garden, Harold got out his tape recorder and began dictating a road map for finishing the book. His biggest concern was to give a balanced account of Fossey's life. He never forgot that in spite of her ultimate decline into near madness, she was instrumental in saving an entire species.

The news from the biopsy was the worst: Harold had a glioblastoma, probably the most vicious kind of brain tumor. Virtually no one survives. Somewhere in the back of my mind I registered this and then put it away where it wouldn't keep me from taking care of him. For the next nine weeks he would work on his book in the mornings and have radiation treatments in the afternoons. Through all the treatment he never wavered. In October our friend Alan Root, the great wildlife cinematographer who knew Fossey well, called to say he was coming to L.A. I thought Harold ought to warn him that he had been sick rather than surprise him with his new bald head. But Harold wanted to handle it his way. The night Alan arrived, Harold opened the door with a smile, shook Alan's hand and said, "Hi Alan, I've got a brain tumor. How've you been?" After the initial shock, Alan was fine, and we had a wonderful evening.

When the radiation treatments were over in October, it was difficult to accept that there was nothing more we could do. There were no more pills to prescribe, no more treatments to consider. Harold's condition was pathetically irremediable. Chemotherapy would not help; surgery could prolong, but not save, his life and might result in the loss of sight or speech. Somehow, I would cope with each moment as it came. Most nights I would wake up a few hours after falling asleep and lie there wondering how I would go on, then wilt into a mass of sheer resignation, realizing I was powerless.

I wanted so much for Harold to be able to finish his book. It was the most important thing to him. He would spend several hours each morning at his typewriter inching closer and closer to the end. When he wasn't able to work on the book directly, I would read it to him, and like a composer, he could hear if the words were off key and correct them while I took notes.

By January 1989, Harold was weaker but no less determined. Only once did he acknowledge the terrible reality facing us. We were lying in bed together, just staring up at the ceiling as we often did those days, half drowsing, half dreaming, when he turned to me and squeezed my hand and said to me, "Meet me where we used to be." Oh, what I would have given to do that.

For months we had been through nightmares with our health insurance, threatened with illegal cancellations and major delays in payments. The insurance carrier eventually paid, but each week was a battle. Harold's medication alone cost $1,000 a month. Before all this happened it would have been inconceivable to me that people in this country could find themselves in a situation like this with no real help.

My husband was dying, but he was "not sick enough" to warrant a registered nurse, the only kind the insurance company would pay for. I could no longer take care of Harold myself, yet the cost of the help I needed was prohibitive. What did other people do? We were totally helpless until we learned about home hospice care, a sensitive program created to help people with terminal illnesses. It eased the physical stress, but the emotional pain was still overwhelming. In spite of those moments when I dared to think it would be easier to be done with this torment for both of us, I loved Harold more than ever, and I would have lived a thousand of these lives just to keep him with me.

Finally, at the end of March, a distinct line was crossed and everything went. Harold could not move his right arm at all; he could barely move his left; he could no longer walk; he could hardly speak. I knew we had come to the end of the road. We arranged to be admitted to the hospital. The ambulance drove up to our house in silence, no sirens, no flashing lights. It was appropriate, I thought. There was no urgency to this trip. The next 72 hours were a blur. On the morning of April 5. 1989,1 placed a stereo speaker beside Harold's pillow. His favorite Beethoven string quartet was playing as I told him how much I loved him one last time and promised him that his book would be finished.

Harold died that afternoon.

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