On the morning of May 9, people all over southern Maine were glued to their radios, crying over someone they had never met.

That’s when Blake Hayes went back on the air on Coast 93.1 to share his pain over the sudden death of his partner, 37-year-old Kyle Fair. Most listeners felt like they knew Fair, since Hayes talked of him often on the Coast morning show – about the couple’s weekend plans, about their dogs Oscar and Izzy, about their Valentine’s Day gifts.

People listened as Hayes talked about how sad he was and how much he hurt, and as he played, and replayed, an audio clip of Fair saying, “I love you too.” But the morning included lighter moments too. Hayes recounted how Fair had been giving directions to the person who drove him to the hospital just before his death: “Which is reassuring, to know that even in his final moments, he was still a pain in the ass.”

Blake Hayes, right, with his partner, Kyle Fair, who died unexpectedly in April. Photo courtesy of Blake Hayes

“I confused my kids in the car that morning because I was in tears one moment and then burst out in laughter the next,” said Katie Proctor, 30, a regular listener from Limerick. “It was so encouraging to hear him, that he was so positive, and to hear how much he appreciated our support. He’s a big part of my day, and my heart just dropped when I thought of what he is going through. I just can’t imagine what that would be like, suddenly not having my husband.”

Most of Hayes’ listeners also can’t imagine grieving the way Hayes has, in public, sharing his roller coaster of painful moments and joyful memories with an estimated 100,000 listeners. Both Hayes and his listeners say the on-air grieving has made them feel more deeply connected to one another. And Hayes says he’s gained strength from the thousands of emails, posts, calls and texts from listeners with messages like “thinking of you” or “we’re there for you.” Listeners say that, by sharing his grieving process, Hayes is in essence teaching people about healthy grief and showing the importance of letting out emotions and allowing others to help. They say it also reminds them not to take loved ones or even one day of life for granted. And that no matter how different we are, we all go through the same struggles.

“Some of us grew up with the idea that you deal with death privately, you cry for a couple of days and move on. But Blake has showed you don’t just move on, you have good days and bad days, and you don’t have to suffer alone if you talk to people and open up to people,” said Karen Rumo, 53, a listener from Windham who works as a psychiatric technician at Spring Harbor Hospital in Westbrook. “It’s so sad, but what Blake has shared and the outpouring of support has really made so many people feel connected. That’s a special thing to be a part of.”

WEIRD NOT TO TALK ABOUT IT

Fair, who was an engineer, died April 29 after his regular workout at the gym. He felt chest pain and became lightheaded, and and was driven to Maine Medical Center by his trainer, where he later died. Doctors told Hayes that Fair had suffered an aortic dissection, which according to the American Heart Association is a tear in the wall of the aorta that allows blood to enter and create a bulge, narrowing or blocking the flow of blood to the heart. The rate of aortic dissections reported in a year is about five to 30 cases per 1 million people, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Hayes let his “Coast family” of listeners know about Fair’s death a day after it happened, on Facebook, and listeners began sending their thoughts back online and in texts and calls to the station. While tending to funeral details and other matters, Hayes stayed off the air until May 9, when he came back for one show, then returned to working regularly on May 20.

Hayes has been talking about the death of his partner Kyle Fair during his morning show. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

For Hayes, the decision to grieve on air was easy, since he’s always shared his life with listeners. He says being on the radio is his “comfort zone,” where he can process things. “I would feel really weird if I didn’t talk about it (on the radio). It would have been like going to dinner with friends and not talking about it,” he said.

Hayes, 34, has been co-host of the Coast 93.1 morning show for five years with Eva Matteson. The show is a blend of music, talk about current events and the hosts’ daily lives, and interaction with listeners. It’s mostly fun and upbeat, but sometimes raw and real. Hayes, for instance, talked about his father’s death from an overdose on air.

Because both Hayes and Matteson are encouraged to connect with listeners by being themselves, as much as possible, the station has fully backed Hayes in his decision to talk about his loss on air and let listeners join the conversation. The station’s brand manager, Randi Kirshbaum, said station officials are proud of Hayes for sharing his grief and creating connections. She said that in an era of increasing social isolation, creating deep connections over the air, about something as raw and human as dealing with death, is important.

“But this is about more than radio. This is about our shared experience as people. By openly revealing his most powerful emotions, Blake has made it acceptable for others to do the same,” said Kirshbaum. “And the more we connect in love and kindness, the better this world will be.”

Listeners seem to agree.

“It’s the first time I’ve ever felt really connected to someone I’ve never met,” said Jeff Libby, 43, of Saco. Libby said he thinks what Hayes is doing helps remind people of the importance of feeling empathy for others. “I feel like I’m part of his personal life even though we’ve never shaken hands. I love my wife in the same way he loves Kyle, so when I heard him talk about Kyle, my chest physically hurt.”

Hayes has invited listeners who want to “raise a glass” to Fair to come to the Porthole Restaurant and Pub on Custom House Wharf in Portland on June 7 from 5-7 p.m. The station hosts regular Friday happy hours at the waterfront eatery.

A LIFE TOGETHER, TOO SHORT

Hayes grew up in Madison, a small town on the Connecticut shore, and began working as a radio host at 17. His first job as a regular morning host, where he first began talking extensively about his personal life, was when he was hired by Coast 93.1 in 2014. He met Fair through mutual friends in Portland about a year later.

Hayes said he and Fair had a “disputed” first date. They met at a bar and Hayes thought they were just having a friendly drink and snacks. But Fair thought they were having dinner together, and when they didn’t, he went home hungry.

“I don’t know if he didn’t think I was interested because I didn’t have a full meal, but I was. I said ‘I love you’ to him within two weeks,” Hayes said.

Fair, a native of the Dover-Foxcroft area, was very athletic, into hiking and the outdoors. Hayes joked that hiking was just “walking in the woods.” They found middle ground by doing a lot of biking and socializing with friends. They each brought a dog into the relationship.

Blake Hayes looks at framed photographs at his apartment. Derek Davis/Staff Photographer

Two years ago, they bought a home together, a condo in Portland’s East End. The stairway in the home is lined with mounted photos of the couple at various places and events, including Halloween parties. They both loved Halloween.

They had talked about marriage but had no specific plans. Hayes said it was likely “inevitable” and more a question of when than if.

When Hayes went back on the air around 5 a.m. on May 9, he talked about the contrasted feelings he had, about how the world “sucks” because he lost Fair, but how grateful he was for the love and support of people he doesn’t really know. He said he couldn’t keep track of, or respond to, all the calls, emails and texts of support.

“But I’m not complaining – it’s what’s kept me going,” said Hayes. “People keep asking, ‘How are you?’ and the answer is, ‘I’m all right, terrible, awful, heartbroken.’ But please keep asking.” The fact that people he’s never met have said to him, “I’ve been thinking of you all week,” chokes him up and gives him a warm feeling that, he said, “I wish everyone in the world could feel.”

He talked about how the couple celebrated Hayes’ 34th birthday, which was the day before Fair died. They spent some time with friends, ate too much and, at night, cuddled on the couch to watch TV. The last photo Hayes took of Fair was on the couch that night.

Hayes also talked about having to tell Fair’s mother about his death. He told her on the phone, while she was driving with her sisters back from a Cher concert in Massachusetts. Later, she met Hayes at the hospital where she asked Hayes how he was. “Oh, I’ve been better,” he said. When he asked Fair’s mother how Cher was, she said, “Oh, she’s been better, too.”

For much of the show, Hayes was composed, though he paused at some moments. Matteson could be heard choking back tears, as could several callers relaying their sympathies and messages of hope. Matteson told listeners to “drive safe” through their tears.

Cami Googins of Casco was not driving that morning, she was working, at the Gray tollbooth on the Maine Turnpike. She said drivers kept asking her if she was all right, as she listened to Hayes and cried through her whole shift.

Googins had lost her husband, who died suddenly 14 years ago. For years, she had kept her grief bundled up and tried to power through it. So she related, more than most, to what Hayes was going through. And she felt like she could learn from it.

“I’ve been the person who leaves (grief) all inside, and that’s not the way to handle it,” said Googins, 37. “What he went through was the most horrible day of his life, so every day after has to be better. Listening to him has really helped me see that.”

Eva Matteson, left, and Blake Hayes, morning hosts on Coast 93.1, talk with meteorologist Todd Gutner during their show on May 23. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer


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