JAMES CARY SMITH, III July 24, 1962 — June 24, 2015
Two summers ago, Jim developed pain in his left arm. He made a doctor’s appointment, which led to seeing neurologists. On August 6, 2013 he told me he was going back to get the results of the latest tests; that afternoon I had an optometrist’s appointment.
When he called I was being fitted for glasses but I knew something was wrong. I didn’t listen to his voicemail but excused myself from the optician and went outside to return his call. He told me he had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS).
The following day I drove to San Francisco and we took a long walk through Lafayette Park not far from his apartment on Washington St. We sat on a bench under a tree and cried together for more than two hours.
What causes ALS is unknown; there are no treatments or effective drugs. There is no cure. His body would gradually become completely paralyzed; his lungs would be the last to go. He had been told his life expectancy was “probably five years” but that some people lived longer. A small number of patients, about 10%, die within eighteen months. They’re called rapid progressors; Jim would be one of them.
Evidence of his illness started early — a slight dragging of his left leg, difficulty handling small items, a slight speech impediment as his throat started to become paralyzed.
One of Jim’s lifelong dreams was to attend one of the Grand Slam tennis tournaments. There are four — the U.S. Open, Wimbledon, the French Open, and the Australian Open. Even in junior high school Jim would spend hours watching tennis on television.
The Australian Open was scheduled for January, a few months away, so he and I and my partner Bill took a “trip of a lifetime” together. We flew to Bangkok on December 29th and spent three days in Chinatown during the largest Chinese New Year celebration in Southeast Asia, then flew to Chiang Mai in the mountains of northern Thailand for a week.
We flew to Sydney and rented a corner apartment on the 70th floor of a downtown high-rise with stunning views of Sydney. After a week of travel we flew to Melbourne for the Australian Open. As planned, Bill and I flew back after four days, but Jim remained for the rest of the tournament. He was able to watch some of his tennis idols play.
But already — only five months after his diagnosis — he stumbled often, despite using walkers. By the time he returned he had visibly declined.
We are fated to love one another; we hardly exist outside our love, we are just animals without it, with a birth and a death and constant fear between. Our love has lifted us up, out of the dreadfulness of merely living.
― John Updike, Brazil
By March, only seven weeks later, it was clear he could no longer live alone. His hands were increasingly useless; he was losing control of his legs. He ordered a fully-equipped electric wheelchair and moved into an assisted living facility in SF in late April. Within six weeks, he was no longer able to walk. He couldn’t move his arms.
On August 6th, exactly one year after his diagnosis, he was rushed to the emergency room because of a bad fall. That afternoon was the first time I fed him. I remember telling myself “I will not cry” as I spooned ice cream into his mouth. Soon, I was feeding him regularly, helping him out of bed and dressing him.
His mother Janice and his sister Jana had been flying out regularly to help him and spend time with him. I cooked Thanksgiving dinner and Bill and I brought it down to Jim and his mother. I cooked Christmas dinner, too, and watched his mother feed it to him.
His condition worsened; he lost the ability to communicate, and then became completely paralyzed. I told him goodbye before I flew to Finland. His mother had moved into his room at the facility in January and remained with him until he passed away yesterday. His sister Jana, who has been an incredible support, was with him as well. His friend Kristine was often with him, and was there earlier that day.
He was my best friend. We don’t remember meeting because we were babies at the time. His father and my father were best friends. Jim’s mom would bring Jim to our house, or my mom would take me to theirs. Long before we started elementary school, we were already playing together.
In first grade we were field trip partners to the Houston Zoo, and continued to be field trip partners in second, third, fourth and fifth grade, at which time the field trips came to an end. We were debate partners in high school; we poured our lives into the research. We spent countless hours at his house or mine writing briefs, crafting debate strategy and talking politics. We won tournaments all over Texas.
I attended Baylor in Waco and he landed at University of Texas, Austin. Jim remained in Austin to get his Masters in Rhetoric from the Lyndon Baines Johnson School of Public Affairs/UT. Soon, he moved to New York.
I moved to California in 1988 and Jim followed ten months later. Our lifelong friendship didn’t seem remarkable, but as we grew older we realized its rarity. Our connection was deeper than a shared history; we continued to change and grow in similar ways into adulthood and middle age.
We discussed (read: argued) politics and current events. We tried to understand the confusion of our religious upbringings and the culture of our small-town Texas roots. We spent countless hours talking deep into the night about the books we were reading (he enjoyed Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Ursula Hegi, but he was devoted to John Updike.) We exchanged questions and ideas about theology, public policy, literature and the functions of art, movies, and gossip.
Jim had a genuine talent for friendship. Throughout his illness a steady stream of people flew in from all over the U.S. to see him. Many of his friends and coworkers in the Bay Area continued to visit.
Jim and I shared everything, like brothers. What a blessing that for 52 years we were such a vital part of one another’s lives. Now, our shared experiences are for me to think about.
Goodbye Jimbelina, my dearest friend.