Mistress of the Mix: Ray Ray

Dr. Ray.

I’ve made a lot of short speeches to audiences at the Cascade Theatre over the years as Mistress of Ceremonies, but I’m about to make my most important appearance on stage yet this weekend when I deliver the eulogy for my friend Ray Saxer.

I was sitting in the on-air studio, hosting my afternoon radio show late last summer, when Ray walked in – all smiles as usual – and told me he’d been given an expiration date.

“Oh Ray, I’ve got food in my pantry that expired at least five years ago that I’m still eating. An expiration date is just a guideline,” I said, but I immediately broke into tears. That’s because I knew what Ray meant. His doctor had told him that his time was up, and had given him six more months to live.

Ray has been my close friend for fifteen years. Really more like a brother. I can’t even remember where we met, but our friendship developed at Rene Joule, the little bakery across the street from my office when it opened in 2003. We started meeting up for coffee almost every day. When customers were lined up and they needed help behind the counter, Ray and I both would compete to see who could jump up and help out at the espresso machine. I think there were a lot of people who just thought we were lazy employees who only pitched in when it got busy. When the bakery closed, we started meeting for coffee up at Holiday market instead. And there were dinner parties, attempts to teach me how to wake board (never worked), costume parties (he had the best polyester leisure suit), and when the Cascade Theatre opened, Ray started volunteering behind the bar. He’s got his own seat up in the balcony, KK308.

Ray’s face was really well known around town. Especially if you ended up behind him in traffic!

Dr. Ray

Ray was also my chiropractor. You probably recognize the photo above, because it was plastered on the back of Ray’s truck in an advertisement for his business. Dr. Ray cured not only a lot of my spinal aches and pains, but would let me consult with him about all kinds of other medical issues as well. Ray was also my neighbor, so there were times (many, many times to be honest) when I would ask Ray how early he was planning to be in the office the next day, and he’d just tell me to come up to his house and he’d adjust me in his living room right here, right now. Ray was even known to adjust people’s pets from time to time. He was always going the extra mile, doing big favors like it was no big deal.

The Favor

Then one day Ray asked me for a favor. Some mutual friends had set him up on a date. Ray was taking her out to Whiskeytown on his boat, and he wanted to know if I’d go along as his wing man. Well, wing gal. It was weird, I know. But when you think about it, bringing along your best gal friend was actually a really good plan. Kathleen had someone to talk to while Ray was occupied with the mechanics of boating, and there was always a third person to throw up the flag when someone lost their footing water skiing and face planted in the lake.  They had so much in common. Both of them are just gorgeous people. Kathleen was friendly, energetic, as beautiful on the inside as on the outside, and athletic. Just like Ray. I gave her the wing gal seal of approval, not that he needed it. Love was quick to blossom with these two.

Reverend Val, with Kathleen and Ray on their (first) wedding day.

It wasn’t long before he asked for another favor…would I officiate their wedding? And of course I did, not just once but twice. The first time was a flash wedding on the Sundial Bridge with about ten people in attendance. And then I had to marry them again six months later after both of their families and friends demanded they have a formal wedding with a big reception. I can’t blame them. Pretty much everyone Ray ever came into contact with became his friend. Everybody wanted to celebrate with them.

Life happened the way it was supposed to for a few years. There was the honeymoon phase. Then there was real life. There were more costume parties, ball games, birthday parties, two girls to raise, and businesses to run. Eventually Kathleen opened her own coffeehouse, so Ray and I started meeting up for coffee again. Ray’s beloved dog Tiff (part canine, part human, part yeti) passed away, but more dogs and cats were introduced to their household.

The Diagnosis

Then in 2010 Ray felt something uncomfortable in his side. He was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of cancer that grew alarmingly large tumors at a fast rate. But he never said the word cancer. Never. At least not to me. GIST, or Gastro-Intestinal Stromal Tumors is a cancer so rare that the American Cancer Society says only about 4,000 in the United States are diagnosed with it each year. But Ray was a rare guy. He acted like he just had this slightly annoying situation he had to deal with, instead of being diagnosed with a rare, unique cancer that not much is known about except that it kills people.

Have you ever seen a more handsome cancer patient
prepping for surgery?

Ray defied the odds for a long, long time. He refused to be defined by his illness. As an alternative healer, he sought out alternative healing for himself. He got on some experimental drugs that helped a lot, and he just kept chugging along for years. He endured several major surgeries to remove grapefruit sized tumors that left him with a long zipper-like scar up his middle, even had his spleen removed, but he just acted like it was a minor annoyance. He never stopped living his life, never stopped healing others. That energizer bunny just kept hopping along on batteries that never seemed to run down. Ray was a swimmer who kept swimming. A basketball player who kept playing. He was a runner who kept running, even as those tumors slowly started to outpace him. He did it that way for years. Eight years. So long that I think we all got a little lazy. We forgot Ray even had anything wrong with him. But honestly, I think that’s exactly how Ray wanted it.

The Last Favor

So back to that day in my office, when Ray told me he’d been given six months to live. He pulled out a handful of papers and asked me for one last favor.

“Would you witness my will?”

That was a tough moment. It made it real. It meant the treatments weren’t working anymore, and his doctor didn’t think there was anything more that could be done to stop the inevitable. Ray made it clear that he wasn’t planning to give up, that there were more options he was planning to explore, and he had a bucket list of things he was going to be methodically checking off (Half Dome and a trip to the Big Easy, to name a few). But just in case, it was probably a good idea to get his affairs in order.

He handed me the papers, and I’ll admit I didn’t even read them. I just signed them. He told me that the papers went over all the stuff he was leaving to Kathleen, and mentioned that he wanted to be cremated, and wanted his ashes sprinkled at his favorite place on earth, Yosemite.

Ray also told me that he was going to have a huge party. Instead of a funeral when he was gone, he wanted a celebration while he was still around to enjoy it.

In Hawaii, working on that bucket list.

Just like he promised, Ray didn’t laze around after the doctor suggested he give up. Ray worked on that bucket list. He found another doctor. He underwent more treatments and another surgery, and was determined to keep going. And almost exactly six months later, Ray had that party, on his 57th birthday in March. There were hordes of people there celebrating him for turning another year older. He was all smiles (but then again, when wasn’t he), full of good spirits. I could see that he’d lost some more weight and was severely jaundiced, but I really didn’t think it would be his last birthday. Maybe I was in denial, but I’d rather think that Ray’s magic trick had worked. We all thought he was going to live forever. That he’d get through this. I didn’t get much time with Ray at that party. He was in high demand. But at the end, we chatted for a few minutes, and I hugged my friend, and told him I’d see him soon. But that was the last time I’d get to hug him.

Three weeks later, on April 18th, Ray Ray finally slipped into that long final sleep.

It was the next day that Kathleen said, “Well you know what we have to do now, right?”  I had no idea what she was talking about. “After all,” she said, “you witnessed it. His will. You must’ve read it, right?”

I confessed that I hadn’t really read it, and with more than a little trepidation I asked her what she was talking about. Kathleen walked over to the desk, pulled out the will, and pointed to the paragraph, right there on the first page. The one that said that when Ray passed, his directives were that he be cremated, his ashes spread at Yosemite, and that at his celebration of life, everyone dress up in 70’s costumes.

Yeah, he did that. That was Ray. Always a goofball, always up for a costume party.

Ray flanked by his good buddies Doug (L) and Bruce (R), goofing off, as usual.

The Eulogy

So I’ve got this amazing day-glo outfit (courtesy of Goodwill) that I’ll be wearing when I step out onto the Cascade Theatre stage this Sunday afternoon shortly after 2pm to deliver a eulogy that is fitting for my rare, fun loving friend. I’ll tell some stories, we’ll listen to some of his favorite music (he loved The Grateful Dead, but he also had a thing for female power rock balladeers like Cher and Taylor Dayne), we’ll play some Ray trivia, and then we’ll watch a showing of his all-time favorite film on the big screen, “Jaws.” It’s a fitting film to honor a fun loving guy who grew up in New Jersey, and spent his summers on the beach as a lifeguard.

If Ray was a friend of yours (and I can pretty much guarantee that if you bumped into him on the street even once, you’d consider him a friend), you’re invited. And if you can’t make it, at least you can listen to Dr. Ray’s Favorite Songs. It’s the weirdest, goofiest mix of Grateful Dead, Cher and Bruno Mars, but anyone who knew him would agree, it’s so Ray Ray.

Valerie Ing

Valerie Ing has been the Northern California Program Coordinator for Jefferson Public Radio in Redding for 14 years and can often be found serving as Mistress of Ceremonies at the Cascade Theatre. For her, ultimate satisfaction comes from a perfect segue. She and her husband are parents to a couple of college students and a pair of West Highland Terriers, and Valerie can’t imagine life without them or music. The Mistress of the Mix wakes up every day with a song in her head, she sings in the shower and at the top of her lungs in the car.

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