Three years ago, Michael Mays — then an automotive finance manager — struggled to catch his breath. Ever since, he has coped with an undiagnosed disease.
In the intervening three years, the 54-year-old Victoria husband and father of six has been isolated, even before the advent of COVID-19, unable to go out due to his immunocompromised state. But 12 weeks ago, Mays started a home business called Papi’s Kitchen. He makes jams, sauces and peanut brittle as a way of re-establishing his self-worth and, he hopes, leaving a legacy for his family when the disease that has ravaged his body and mental health eventually claims him.
Like many people who were locked down, Mays grew anxious and depressed from the years of isolation. However, unlike others, who can go about their lives nearly normally now, he remains locked down.
Mays can only leave the home to visit his doctors, he said.
He has been in isolation so long he could tell someone exactly what would happen in any given episode of the widely syndicated legal drama Law & Order before it plays out on TV, he said.
“Thank God for streaming, because I don’t know what I would do otherwise,” he said.
Mays has seen several doctors here in Victoria, San Antonio and Houston. None have been able to diagnose the disease that has infiltrated his body and necessitated him being on high-flow oxygen, forced him to take 25 daily prescriptions and has caused issues with many of his organs — ranging from his kidneys, lungs and liver to his lymph nodes and gallbladder, he said. Beyond the disease, he has also been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes and sarcoidosis, which causes growths on internal organs.
In total he pays $1,500 to $1,700 monthly for prescriptions after insurance and grants, he said.
Doctors have given Mays five to seven years to live, he said.
“There is no cure for it and now that it has spread into other organs its now how much they can slow the progress down,” Mays said. “I do everything they say, I still don’t get any better. That’s the most frustrating thing about it.”
All about family
One thing the disease has given Mays, though, is the clarity to remember the importance of his family, he said.
“Before I was sick I was a workaholic and tried to set an example for my children to have a good work ethic and how to treat people the way you would want to be treated,” he said. “Being sick made me realize how much I missed out on by working all the time, and I should have valued that time better.”
Despite this, he still tries activities such as playing basketball as much as he can. He currently home-schools his son Cameron, 13.
Michael Mays has always been a good father, said his wife Rhonda, 54. Even now, he is uplifting to everyone despite all that’s happening in his life.
‘He’s always provided’
The way he carries himself, even now you wouldn’t think he was in such bad shape, she said. He is her and the family’s rock.
“He’s always provided for us and even now he still does,” she said.
Since starting Papi’s Kitchen, Mays has pepped up emotionally compared with where he was before, she said.
“You just see that spark in him,” she said.
She described him as a fighter and she hopes he can still beat the disease.
So far, he has sold 557 jars of homemade jams and sauces through local market days. Mays can work a few hours a day before his body gets tired.
Business nearly breaks even
He is one more market day away from breaking even on the venture, he said.
The name Papi’s Kitchen actually comes from his stepchildren, who nicknamed him Papi, he said.
His hope is that as his business grows, stores like Buc-ee’s or H-E-B will take notice and start selling his products so he has a legacy to leave to his family.
“They are my rock,” he said. “They get me through everything, especially my wife, as she sees me at my lowest. If, for nothing else, I want to leave them with something when I’m gone so they’re taken care of.”
Kyle Cotton was born and raised in San Antonio and graduated from San Antonio College and the University of Texas at Arlington. Cotton has covered economic development, health care, finance, government, technology, oil and gas and higher education.