John bought the red sweatshirt, fleece-lined and hooded, from L.L. Bean three-and-a-half years into his Stage 4 lung cancer. We lived in Florida then, staying with his sister Pat in her retirement community near Orlando where he got treatment. John could never warm up enough. Chemo and radiation had weakened his muscles. He napped a lot. Even when wearing the sweatshirt, he sometimes shivered with cold.
A year earlier, we sold our catamaran Smooch on which we had lived in Fort Lauderdale, and we moved to Merida, Yucatan. Although not strong enough to sail anymore, John was still robust, and we didn’t want to hang around a furnished Florida apartment waiting for the next CT scan. Merida with its gorgeous colonial architecture, lively mercados, friendly locals, active ex-pat community and economical lifestyle appealed to us. From Merida, John flew to Florida once a month for chemo. He treated the excursions like overnight business trips.
One day in Merida before he was set to go to Orlando for chemo, he woke up feeling extremely dizzy. He could barely walk straight. A doctor in Merida prescribed “dizzy pills” for 100 pesos. I booked a flight to Orlando so I could accompany him for his treatment.
John’s oncologist in Florida ordered an MRI, and we soon found ourselves sitting across from Dr. R., John’s neuro-radiologist. A few small brain tumors had popped up in the past, and Dr. R. had demolished them with gamma-knife radiosurgery. Now, on this trip, Dr. R. brought up the latest MRI on his computer.
White blobs of all sizes glowed like misshapen stars from the dark recesses of John’s brain. He would need two weeks of whole brain radiation. Dr. R. asked John not to fly to Merida until the MRI results of the radiation arrived in two months.
Dr. R. said, “The next two months will be a delicate time for the brain, a little dicey.“
John’s interpretation: “Your brain will explode if you fly.”
Dr. R. was confident that he could keep John’s brain clear of tumors for six months or longer, and if new ones cropped up, he could again perform gamma ray surgery. He wanted to begin immediately.
I reeled from the term “whole brain radiation.” I imagined John becoming a vegetable. Dr. R. assured us that would not happen.
As we stood up to leave, Dr. R. shook John’s hand and said, “We’ve had a good run.”
The handshake reeked of finality. Shaken, John called his oncologist who reassured him that the last scans showed no spread of the lung cancer within the lung. We held onto the hope that Dr. R. would perform his magic: John would come through this awful turn of events intact, a little the worse for wear.
John took the brain radiation well: a little unsteady on his feet but his brain remained sharp. He wore the sweatshirt in the house, loose and unzipped, warming his hands in the pockets. He kept it on even in the 95˚ midday heat of the screened porch. From my air-conditioned spot on a stool at the kitchen counter, I would turn around to check on him—the back of his sweatshirt a stark red against the bright glow of his computer screen through the sliding doors.
We met in our twenties in Connecticut and, once we became a couple, had always lived on or around boats. John had sailed since he was four. Now, as I stared at the back of the sweatshirt, I remembered John’s tanned back and broad shoulders as he trimmed sails, tightened turnbuckles and captured loose halyards on our sailboats. He would haul heavy sail bags from below deck or grab the thick end of the boom on his shoulders to lift it. He’d expect me to hold up the other end. My family did not prize physical prowess and I had disdained team sports. But I loved the physicality of sailing with John.
Before we knew about the cancer, we would set out on Smooch in the soft middle-of-the-night darkness from Biscayne Bay to sail across the Florida Straits to the Bahamas. The alarm would go off and we would bolt awake, nerves jangling. I would brew coffee while John did a final check of the engine and deck, making sure everything was tied down tight. While the engine warmed up, we sat quietly in the cockpit sipping coffee, adjusting to the darkness and taking our bearings-–boats anchored around us, sand glowing on the nearby beach, navigation lights leading out to the channel. John steered from the cockpit while I raised anchor and then ran back to the nav station below to guide us out.
Once we had turned into Biscayne Channel, I would join John on deck. He steered us between the red and green lights towards the open sea, black and alive with uncertainty. The winking harbor lights comforted me as we plunged into the unknown.
Now, as the weeks dragged on at John’s sister’s house while we waited for the MRI, the red sweatshirt, softened and stretched from washings, was worn and supple. Almost imperceptibly, it began to hang more loosely around John’s thinning shoulders. The sweatshirt engulfed my formerly tanned, broad-shouldered sailor who not so long ago had raced headlong across the deck in choppy seas to tame a loose jib sheet.
I missed that sailor. At times, I regarded the shopworn sweatshirt as though it were a flimsy hospital gown–flaps loose, revealing John’s pale legs and back, and exuding the chemical smell of his illness.
After he got sicker—the brain radiation was successful, but the lung cancer spread–I came across a photo I had snapped just a few weeks earlier of John and his sister Pat, with whom we had stayed five months by then, instead of the originally planned three days. In the picture, John was seated at her dining table. She leaned into him, one arm around his shoulder, a hand resting on his chest. Cheeks pressed together, John and Pat shook with laughter. You couldn’t mistake the family resemblance: wide smiles, twinkling eyes nearly crinkled shut, strong jaws.
Pat, six years older, had taught John to smoke when he was eight. She had chanted “loony, loony” when he talked to himself as a kid while playing with his toys. The siblings’ dark humor had always attracted me. In the photo, they could have been laughing about John’s shrunken shoulders or his last cough. The photo lifted my spirits in a way that well-meaning platitudes people tossed my way –“hold strong,” “you can beat this”–did not.
They were laughing at the blackness, the void ahead. John’s faded red sweatshirt took up much of the frame, warming me like the winking harbor lights when we headed to sea at night.
Susan Cole recently completed a memoir about a three-year sailing voyage she took with her husband and daughter from Connecticut to the Bahamas, Cuba, Mexico, Belize and Guatemala. Essays about her family’s sailing adventure have appeared in Daily Palette, Mary, and Living Aboard. She has attended the Iowa Summer Writing Festival every year since 2007. In between sails, she earned a B.A. from Barnard College, an M.A in Psychology from Columbia University, and for many years, ran a successful new-product marketing research firm. She currently lives in New Orleans, enjoying a new land-bound adventure.
Read an interview with Susan here.