MAPLETON — It was late on a frigid Friday night when Sean Smith drew his last breaths in a Payson hospital.

Only his youngest brother, Hank, could be with him in those final hours on Dec. 11 as COVID-19 made it impossible for his lungs to distribute oxygen to his body, causing his organs to fail.

His cousin, Nicole Gregory, also kept vigil in those final days, and his son Jerdin, managed to drive to Utah in time to say goodbye, but his parents were in separate medical facilities fighting their own health battles, and his younger sister Jennefer Johnson was home on oxygen recovering from her own coronavirus fight. 

The rest of his family members were scattered in other states, far from the tragedy that unfolded after he, Hank Smith and Johnson contracted COVID-19 from their mother, who was staying in a long-term care facility in Utah County.

The morning after Sean died, it became Hank Smith’s responsibility to tell Mike and Cyndi Smith that the boy who’d made them parents in 1966 was gone. At 54 years old and on the verge of starting a new life, Michael Sean Smith became one of the 1,196 Utahns killed so far by the virus.

Hank Smith, a religion teacher at BYU and beloved Latter-day Saint author and speaker, chose to visit his mother first on that Saturday morning, although he freely admits his reticence.

What child wants to break his mother’s heart? And in this case, he worried he might have to do it more than once.

“With the dementia, it’s hit and miss, and I was nervous that I was going to have to do this over and over,” Smith said. “I sat with her for a couple of minutes ... and then I said, ‘Mom, Sean passed away.’ She looked at me and said, ‘Oh, oh my oldest.’ She just kind of sat back in her bed.”

Most days, Cyndi Smith remembers that a virus she didn’t know she had has stolen her oldest son.

But some days his absence is baffling.

“Right before he became sick, he bought my mom beautiful pajamas to wear,” Johnson said. “He would sit with her for hours at a time in her care center, and they would watch episodes of ‘Star Trek Voyager’ and ‘Stargate.’ He would always bring her a small Coke and a hamburger — and Junior Mints if she wanted a treat. She loved that. Now she looks over to the empty chair and asks, ‘Is Sean OK?’ Sometimes she forgets.”

Delivering the news to his father was one of the most heartbreaking experiences Hank Smith has endured. When he walked into the rehabilitation center, the nurses were quick to tell him that Mike, a former golf pro, was having a great day.

“I knew this one would be harder just because of the relationship between Sean and my dad,” Hank Smith said. “I walked into the hospital and his nurse said, ‘Oh, he’s having a great day. He’s been up; he’s been doing therapy; he’s been laughing.”

He went into his father’s room and they made small talk for a couple of minutes.

“I said, ‘Hey, Dad, I’ve got some really bad news,’” Smith said. “And he said, ‘Is it Sean? And I said, ‘Yeah, he passed away last night.’ And he just lost it. I mean, he was just shaking with grief.”

Sean and Hank Smith were separated by 12 years and three siblings. The Smith family lived in Salt Lake County for most of Sean’s life, but Hank grew up in St. George. 

“He was the boss,” Hank Smith said, adding that because his father taught for the PGA for decades, all five of the Smith children took up golf. “Basically, all five of us grew up on the golf course.”

But Sean, as the oldest, spent more time with his father than his siblings. He knew the course where his dad taught — Fore Lakes — inside and out — every turn, every trap, every trick.

“Sean frequently talked about growing up on that golf course,” Hank Smith said. They spent a lot of time golfing together. All of my siblings are pretty independent, but Sean was a daddy’s boy. He just wanted to talk everyday to Dad.”

Sean Smith also loved cars of all kinds, and he could sell just about anything to anyone. So naturally, he was a top-notch auto salesman.

“If the Spirit World has a car dealership,” Smith wrote in his brother’s obituary, “Sean is probably already trying to sell Henry Ford a Chevy.”

If a life is measured in professional successes, Sean Smith’s life was rather ordinary, maybe something he was in the process of changing. But if a life is measured in acts of kindness, he was extraordinary, especially in the way he gave quietly and without regard for his own well-being.

“Super big heart,” Smith said when asked to describe his brother. “He loved to give, even when he didn’t have money to give. ... He was a big-time giver.”

Johnson received a call from her brother one December night many years ago. She was newly divorced with two small children, and he was worried about her. She met him in the parking lot of a mall, just for a few minutes, where he gave her several boxes meant to brighten her Christmas morning. 

Cyndi Smith visits her oldest son, Sean Smith, in a Payson intensive care unit the day before he passed away from COVID-19 on Dec. 11. | Hank Smith

“My brother loved to give,” Johnson said. “As a single mom he was always concerned that I wasn’t getting a gift on Christmas morning, and through the years he would call me and we would meet and he would hand me a present, a gift card, movie tickets. He loved to give, especially during the holidays.”

Smith said whenever he’d drop presents off for his nieces or nephews, he’d say hello, express his love and leave. He never stuck around for the opening of presents or the obligatory thank-yous. 

Sean Smith suffered his fair share of mistakes and lived with regret about roads he wished he didn’t travel. But after his father’s stroke, he began talking with his family about what and how he’d like to change.

“He and I spent some time together with my mom, right after our dad’s stroke, and he would tell me his hopes and dreams, what he was hoping to accomplish and how sorry he was for some of the mistakes that he had made,” Johnson said. “He had just started praying again. He said that he felt the Lord was with him. For the last few years he had been going to the Rock Church, he loved it there — I think that helped turn him toward God again. He was looking forward to going to Carson City, and working for his good friend Benny. He was supposed to leave on this new adventure the week he became sick. He said, ‘When I get to Carson City, I’m going to meet with the LDS missionaries, it’s time.’” 

He was on his way to the job in Nevada when he called Hank Smith and told him he felt sick. His brother told him he should come home and get tested for COVID-19, just in case. No one wants to start a new job and then have to call in sick.

A day later, the nursing home where their mother was staying until their father had recovered called to let them know she’d tested positive in a round of routine testing they did of residents and staff. She never developed any symptoms.

All three of her children tested positive, and all were sick to varying degrees: Sean Smith ended up in the hospital a couple of days after testing positive; Johnson was very sick and needed oxygen at home; and Hank Smith was sick, especially with body aches, but recovered quickest and with the least complications.

In his brother’s final moments, Hank Smith said he just held his hand and talked about faith and family.

“He didn’t respond or anything,” Smith said. “When they have you on the ventilator, it’s really hard to handle, so they keep you pretty heavily sedated.”

Smith kept his parents and siblings apprised of Sean’s ups and downs, and eventually, he had to tell them that the family will always have an empty chair at the table. The “most devastating moment of it all” was seeing his father’s reaction.

“He just sobbed and sobbed,” Smith said. “Here’s a guy who has stage 4 cancer, he’s had a stroke, he’s trying to get back on his feet, and I have to deliver this news.”

Grief is always complicated. But in the shadow of the pandemic, it’s almost unbearable.

Families cannot gather the way they normally would. Funerals can’t give families a sense of community, of support as they wade through grief, nor can they offer the kind of closure they once promised.

It is lonely and unsatisfying. It is frustrating and unfair.

“Even (my parents), the two of them grieving apart is so hard,” Smith said. “I think they would be able to grieve a little bit better ... if they could just sit by each other and talk it out.”

Technology will allow them to see and communicate with each other, but so much of sharing a lifetime of love and heartbreak is in just being near to someone who knows you without words.

“It’s more of that lying down next to each other and just talking it through,” he said. “So the idea that they’re grieving apart is really hard.”

As Hank Smith navigated his own heartbreak the night his brother died, he said he thought about those who’d cared for his brother for more than two weeks.

“It was hard enough being with your brother as he passes,” he said. “I was watching them, and I can’t imagine patient after patient after patient, 24-7 care ... and you’re losing each one. ... I just can’t imagine that connection, and then losing them. And then making that connection with another patient, and then losing them.”

As Johnson navigates the pain of losing her big brother, she also wades through the frustration she feels with how some see the precautions meant to mitigate the spread of the virus as an infringement on their rights.

“It was hard not to be there for him,” she said. “We contracted COVID at the same time, and I came down with COVID pneumonia about the time he was admitted to the hospital. I only ended up staying in the ER for a few hours, but he never left the hospital.”

In different hospitals and then from her home, she and her brother talked about their recoveries. His worry was her. Her fear was his deteriorating condition. Those calls ended when he had to be put on a ventilator. 

“I wish the people who have never had this virus, or think that it will never affect them, or (who) think that it should just run its course and have a survival of the fittest mentality, could step into the shoes of the millions of families it has affected and truly see, to have their eyes completely open to understand the devastation that this horrible virus has reaped on families, on the frontline health care workers, and all those who are suffering,” she said.

Economies will recover, she said, as they always do.

But families will never be the same. 

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She wonders if one of the gifts of the pandemic is learning to better care for each other.

“Perhaps now is the time that we look forward and find ways each of us individually can bless and care for our fellow human family,” and then she quotes Latter-day Saint scripture, Doctrine and Covenants Chapter 81:5. “Perhaps then we can truthfully say to our Savior, ‘I have succored the weak, I have lifted up the hands which hang down, and I have strengthened the feeble knees.”

There won’t be a service celebrating the life of Sean Smith until his father recovers and COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, maybe later this summer. He is survived by son Jerdin and a daughter Makenzie and four grandchildren. His siblings hope their family and extended family can gather, and their parents can stand together and say goodbye to their firstborn child surrounded by love and support. Until then, the family created a fund that will help pay for those services, but will also help with medical expenses for Sean and Mike Smith.

And this week, two weeks after losing their son to COVID-19, Cyndi and Mike Smith will be reunited as residents of the same long-term care facility. According to the baby of the family, this two month separation is the longest they’ve been apart in their 57 years of marriage.

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