In the summer of 2016, my older brother was diagnosed with cancer that was going to be the end of him. Rare, no cure, far less of a future in sight.
Or, so we thought.
However, we should probably take a step back. The oldest in our family, Jay Smat, had four idyllic years as an only child before the rest of us, like overdue chicks, followed five, seven, nine and 11 years later. Me, another brother and two more sisters. Thank God he got one brother.
The punchline at family gatherings is “he kept his distance” as evidenced by holiday photos where Jay is always taller, eyeing us with suspicion, or pinching his sisters from behind.
For many decades after we left home, moved on and raised our own families, Jay kept that distance, which was easy for the man who spent more time on sailboats than in his quaint Annapolis home. Not that he didn’t ever show up. He sent me birthday cards for years. No note, just his scripted name, which I greeted with a cocked eyebrow and wondered what port he was in.
He’d arrive from time to time, usually a surprise, and call us from Midway or O’Hare to come get him asking, “Isn’t it someone’s birthday?” Envision lots of family laughter, smiles, hurrahs and prodigal son comparisons.
After decades of perfect attendance at the U.S. Sailboat Show, he announced his retirement in 2014 and departed Annapolis for the warmer harbors of St. Petersburg, Florida. Got himself a membership at the Dalí Museum, found his permanent bar stool at Billy’s Stone Crab and befriended the local smokers.
Life’s a beach until it isn’t. He complained to us that his back ached, was getting worse and then it was “killing” him.
Maybe it was, and after making the rounds of specialists — much like being caught in a squall past dark — he gave up on the local practitioners. They’d diagnosed everything from heart disease to cholesterol to bunions. He’d been pricked and MRI’d and aroma therapied more than he could take. From many miles away, our response was, “You’re old. Backs hurt. Get used to it.”
Instead of listening, Jay drove overnight to Annapolis in search of past doctors and was lucky to stay in a sailing buddy’s house undergoing rehab, which seems so very prescient.
Other than no hot water, he was on idyllic Minnow Creek off Whitehall Bay, and although he didn’t have the energy to sail, he had a view to a rebuilt C&C moored at the dock. That’s when he called me. Not a huge honor. Me being geographically closest in New York was the reason. “Hey, why don’t you come down? It’s beautiful. We’ll go to Carrol’s Creek for dinner.”
I went. I’m the oldest sister. How could I not? (And I love the scallops at the restaurant on the harbor that he’d dangled in front of me.) I enjoyed taking Amtrak’s Acela Express from Penn Station to Baltimore where I found him waiting in front of the station. He didn’t get out of his car, only rolling down the window to say, “You’re late. Get in.”
My eyebrow was cocked and ready. “Well, hello to you, too,” I mumbled. I knew he’d rather it was our younger brother, a male and someone who is very easy on the conscience.
Me, not so much. I’m quick to reach strong opinions, although nowadays I am somewhat more willing to admit to being wrong. I’m also a proud stage three cancer survivor. So, as life often orchestrates, I was probably a good choice to help navigate the rough waters ahead.
What happened next and next and after that is both nightmare and miracle, sad and uplifting, frightening and filled with the gift of ballast that sailors appreciate. When we arrived at the friend’s house that became our temporary residence for some time, Jay said, “I’m going to need some help getting out of the car.” I asked, “What?” to which came the gruff retort, “I can’t walk.”
He couldn’t walk?
He couldn’t walk!
I’m his sister, not a friend. I’ve stayed in various of his abodes maybe five times in my life. I like his ex-wives and past girlfriends more than I care for him and … he can’t walk!
Thankfully, his friends let us stay in their lovely home on the water although the two steps up to the door almost did him in. The next morning, he was flat on the floor having fallen in the night.
Before coffee, he was taken by ambulance to the local ER whose doctors tried everything they could, but Jay, relegated to a wheelchair, posed a true conundrum. By evening, he was exhausted and wanted to go home — meaning the barstool at Billy’s — and he needed a cigarette.
I was sure of only one thing: high tail it as quick as possible to a big city hospital like Northwestern that had laid its miracle hands on me. Somehow, between his ex-wife’s counsel (who is still a friend for which I am truly grateful) and I guess some divine intervention, Jay was provided a second ambulance ride this time to Johns Hopkins where our new hero, Dr. Adam Levin, orthopedic oncology surgeon, took over and saved the day despite Jay’s continued habit of addressing him as Dr. Levine and asking, “Where’s your band?”
Within a month, Jay was told he had a mysterious cancer that was hellbent on strangling his spine, femurs and any bones nearby, leaving him little time on this great Earth. He didn’t need to be given the “get your affairs in order” speech and instead peppered the doctor with, “So you’re saying my trip to the Seychelles is a no-go” and told the kind intensive care nurses, “I guess we’re not going for drinks tonight.”
Of course, the question on everyone’s mind was “how long?” He was given months, six on the high end, and told we’ll start treatment, do what we can, slow it down and the inevitable “call your kids.”
We found him a place to live. Jay wasn’t about to leave Dr. Levin nor his new bestie, Dr. Redmond, a saintly radiation oncologist who talked with him for as long as he needed — a divine twofer in our book. Our younger sister in Chapel Hill, the most organized of us, called to tell Jay he had to give up the Florida condo.
His response was something like WTF and he probably hung up on her, then called back, and eventually gave in to her ultra-helpful offer to go pack for him, return his treasures to Annapolis and recreate his home if she could.
By Christmas, finished with physical therapy, in his new apartment, walking a little, and me back in New York, I called him as regular as a trying-her-best sister could. One day I inferred that he wasn’t dying anytime soon and asked, “Whatcha gonna do with the rest of your life?” a question that was not well-received.
His response equated to a couple more WTFs and he did hang up on me. A week later, our younger brother in Naperville told me, “Jay’s making a list.” I asked, “Of what?” and he said, “Stuff, you know, what he’s gonna do with the rest of his life.” Aha!
When he couldn’t drive and yelled, “How the #&% am I supposed to get to Hopkins?” I found a whole bunch of services that the city of Annapolis has for people in need. “There’s a shuttle. Call them. They’ll take you.”
He didn’t like the idea of anyone helping him and I let it go. Recently though, he told me how industrious he is, that people need to know to look further, go on the internet and that there’s a lot of assistance out there.
“Annapolis is fantastic,” he lectured me, him suddenly so wise, “Sends this shuttle. Takes me to my treatments. You just got to open your eyes and there is help out there.”
As challenging as the past couple of years may sound, I suspect the real difficulty has descended on him these days. He’s alive. He’s living with terminal cancer.
He’s withstood painful surgeries you wouldn’t want to imagine, has more titanium in him than the Six Million Dollar Man, had months of chemotherapy and radiation and, of late, is on Keytruda that seems to be the new miracle in his life. It’s all a stopgap measure but he’s still here, tired, yet he gets around — a trip to Giant for groceries is almost as exciting as a journey abroad.
Jay called me the other day to announce, “I took a shower. It’s a lot of work and I actually feel pretty good.”
The question that remains is unavoidable. What do you do when you’re terminal, but you don’t die?
Here are a few things we’ve learned.
When Jay had only months to live, he checked things off his bucket list. Went to an island to stare at the sea and eat French food. Repaid some overdue chits to his kids. Took the whole bunch of them to Duck, North Carolina, so they could bond (I know, different story).
Thankfully younger brother headed to Florida with him a few times. All told, he spent most of his savings.
Two years later, he’s more frugal. The point being, you don’t know what you don’t know, nor how long you’ll need what you’ve got.
Today, he shares an apartment with a roommate, named Jay, go figure, who sells yachts for a living. When roommate Jay leaves to meet a client, my brother yells from his La-Z-Boy, “Don’t forget to tell them about” and mentions some nautical feature.
Roommate stops to chat about it with him. Wow! Thank you, nice roommate, and by the way, my brother knows how much you’re doing out of the goodness of your heart.
My brother also knows how to fix a boat engine, offer a temporary solution to most appliance breakdowns and can find an alternative route off the highway quicker than any GPS.
He may not have the energy to fix your dishwasher but much gratitude to the friends and family who still call on him for his suggestions. What a gift to be asked to assist even from your lounge chair.
My brother has gotten a little nicer, too. He calls me on occasion to ask how I am. He’s up to snuff on politics, great at conspiracy theories, reads every new thriller, is pretty good at advice, and has rightfully suggested times when I should be more understanding of others.
I guess my final thought to those with prodigal sisters or brothers is don’t change your phone number — even wayward family members return. It may seem it’s only because they need you; however, sometimes it’s not.
There are times these days when my siblings and I get on a conference call with Jay. We tell funny stories and ask each other questions about when we were kids.
His perspective on our childhood is way different than ours, which gives the rest of us a good laugh. I texted an ancient black and white photo to everybody. It went viral, at least among our family, and the ensuing discussion was one we won’t ever forget.
Last week I asked Jay, “So, whatcha gonna do now?” And he barked in his big brother way, “Leave me alone.”
A few days later he called to tell me he met a lady on the shuttle home from Hopkins and was going to ask her to have coffee. I hope she says yes.
My take on this is we’re all terminal. Don’t dwell on it.
Writer Marcia Bradley is a resident of the Bronx, New York, who earned a master of fine arts degree from Sarah Lawrence College in 2017. She continues to be in regular touch with her brother, Jay, who worked in real estate sales before shifting to yacht management in 2013.