55: The Beer Hat

55: The Beer Hat

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Family Caregivers

The Beer Hat

Perhaps I know best why it is man alone who laughs; he alone suffers so deeply that he had to invent laughter.

~Friedrich Nietzsche

There’s much to be known about a person by the type of hat he wears. Take for instance my brother-in-law, Ray. He had a beer hat. No, he didn’t buy it for himself nor did he drink beer. But who he was could be seen in that hat.

In the final stages of ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, he had lost the use of his arms and legs. The beer hat was a gift from his adult stepdaughter who thought it would give him the independence to drink fluids on his own. A crazy gift to help with liquid intake became a wellspring of joy.

My sons, Jake, age 15, Ben, age 12, and I were helping out for a while at my sister Mary and Ray’s home. The hat had arrived in the mail, and Ray was dashing in his new chapeau. But it didn’t work as his daughter had planned. Sucking the liquids out of the cans was too difficult in his advanced state, and once the contents did begin to flow, he could not stop it. Undaunted by these setbacks, my two sons and Ray put their heads together to devise a plan to create a useable beer hat.

Ray loved a challenge. His creative mind combined with the boys’ farm-savvy, machine-repair knowledge and soon the teens were on bikes heading to parts stores in search of one-way valves. It was with heavy hearts that none could be found in the tiny mountain town in which they lived.

Undaunted, Ray “rallied the pack” into a new effort. Searching online through the maze of computer-accessed stores, they were able to locate a special valve that had possibilities. The order was placed with express shipping guaranteed, and the package arrived two days later.

Ray was quickly wheeled outside onto a shady part of the lawn. It was getting warm out, and we had all learned from past experiments that this reinventing of the beer hat could be very wet. Being a great fan of soda, Ray’s hat soon sported a can on each side. A tube was inserted into each of them, and then the two tubes were joined, making a type of long, looping straw. The plan was to place a oneway valve somewhere on the straw part so the liquid would flow only when sucked on, and what was in the straw would remain there until it was sipped again. It was easy in theory, but…

There’s something about fizzy soda on a hot day, guys needing a break from the seriousness of impending death, and a crazy idea that can create some of the best times of life. My sister and I vanished inside, handing out extra cans of soda as needed, and soaking in the laughter that erupted every few minutes as Ray, Jake, and Ben got doused with sticky soda as each attempt to make it work required another alteration—and another can of soda.

I knew Ray was getting too much sun, but Mary restrained me from interfering. This was their last chance to laugh together. This was the memory that would carry Ray through those next weeks, and the boys for the rest of their lives. Uncle Ray could not do anything but sip on a straw while his two fellow accomplices cut and pieced, fitted and refitted, soaking him and themselves, until “Uncle Ray’s Famous Soda Hat” finally worked!

Yes, indeed, there is much that you can learn about a person by the hat he wears. Ray’s hat spoke of patience, kindness and a love that went deeper than an ocean full of soda. When he passed to his new life a month later, he still had a bit of a sunburn. For him, it was a treasured reminder of a sunny day filled with laughter and two of the people he loved: my sons.

~Cecilia Egger McNeal

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