- Associated Press - Thursday, March 5, 2015

DOTHAN, Ala. (AP) - “I still feel like I’m in a dream and it’s not true,” Alicia Hayes said.

Yet every morning, Hayes and her husband Frank arise knowing their only child is no longer in their presence.

“You just have to keep putting your feet in front of you and keep going,” the mother said. “Somehow you make it through.”

Cody Hayes was a strong, vibrant teenager who loved sports. He was a center on the Ashford High School football team and pitcher and third baseman on the baseball team.

“He was a very athletic, very strong, muscular boy,” Alicia said. “He was hardly ever sick.”

All of which makes what transpired still so very hard to understand.

Cody was diagnosed with cancer on Oct. 5, 2013. He lost the battle on June 12, 2014 at the age of 17.

“He was low risk,” Alicia explains. “He did his four treatments that were a month at a time. We came home (the last time) and went back and it was very aggressive and didn’t respond to the chemo. It was unreal.”

As Alicia scrolls through her cell phone of photos of her son, she talks about the foundation that has been established in Cody’s name to help fund cancer research. She also mentions the golf tournament coming up on April 30 at Highland Oaks in Dothan as a fundraiser in hopes of helping to build a fieldhouse for the Ashford High baseball team in his honor.

University of Alabama senior football player Austin Shepherd, who became close to Cody during his hospital stays in Birmingham, will play in the golf tournament and spots are available to be on his team in the four-person scramble format. Shepherd created the The Austin Shepherd Foundation to help raise money for Children’s Hospital in Birmingham and makes monthly visits there, often bringing along teammates to help cheer up the patients.

The golf tournament was suggested by Shepherd’s fiancée, Jenna King, who lost a brother to cancer and has become close to the Hayes family. Miss Alabama USA Madison Guthrie, a friend of King, will also be at the event to present the awards and prizes. For complete information on the golf tournament or to register online, visit www.stayingcodystrong.org or call (334) 793-4850.

“The golf tournament is a community project in memory of Cody,” Alicia said. “The Ashford baseball field is located right beside the football field and they don’t have a locker room or bathroom or fieldhouse - so they have to go over to the football field to go to the bathroom.

“They have a pole barn that’s behind it (baseball field), so my dream is to close in the rest of the pole barn and make it a locker room, fieldhouse for the boys. We’re hoping to raise $20,000 to do this. That’s our goal.”

Cody Hayes remains close to the hearts of many in the Ashford community.

One of his best friends, Zack Moore, is wearing Cody’s baseball jersey this season. At the end of the season, Cody’s baseball jersey No. 6 will be retired at the school.

“We’re going to frame it and put it in the locker room,” Alicia said. “”Last year they all had warm-up shirts that had Cody’s name and number (6) on the back.

“There are several players at other schools that are wearing his number in honor of Cody - JoJo Seale at Ashford Academy and Joey Williams at Houston County.”

Alicia still has trouble holding back the tears when reflecting on the day they went to the doctor believing there was nothing seriously wrong.

“He just got some sinus issues - runny nose, coughing,” Alicia said. “We did our own little home remedies like I’ve always done, and he actually got better.

“Two days after he started taking stuff it was right back on him. He cut grass on the weekend. We talked about going (to the doctor Saturday). After he got through cutting grass he was tired, but he never ran any temperature until Sunday.”

The two went to the doctor on Sunday morning and the news following a blood test hit them like a ton of bricks.

“They told me it was likely he had some type cancer, probably leukemia,” she said. “That was at 9 and we were in an ambulance heading to Birmingham by 1.”

Except for four visits home - the most being two weeks at a time on two occasions - Cody would be in Children’s Hospital for the next eight months battling acute myeloid leukemia.

“That’s really an adult disease, but some children do get it,” Alicia said. “You never know what life sets in front of you. He said, ‘Mom, I don’t even feel sick,’ especially after we got through with that first treatment.

“He handled it with a lot of dignity. One of the things he said was he just wanted people to treat him normal. A lot of times people don’t know what to say, or they don’t say anything. And that makes you feel set apart.”

As Cody fought the disease head-on in Birmingham, his classmates continued to keep him in their thoughts.

“During football season (2013) when he was alive, during homecoming they dedicated their floats to Cody and all of the floats had something about Cody on them,” she said. “The cheerleaders made a sign that they put on the football field every game - even the away games - that said “CODY STRONG.”

A group of students visited Cody in the hospital to celebrate his birthday last May.

“They set it up where the school could bring a bus of his friends up and we did birthday cake for his birthday and he died 20 days later,” Alicia said.

This past January, Alicia and Frank established the Staying Cody Strong non-profit foundation to help with cancer research and to give money toward a college scholarship each year for a student at both Ashford High School and Ashford Academy.

“When you walk that journey, you really realize how limited you are,” Alicia said of cancer research. “The drugs that Cody took were developed back in the early 70s and 80s. Really the only time you get anything that is new is if you’re at the end of your journey, and they are grasping at things and they do a study, or a trial drug.

“After he passed away we decided we wanted to do something in the memory of Cody because he was our only child. Our house is very empty.”

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Information from: The Dothan Eagle, https://www.dothaneagle.com

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