VALRICO — Growing up in New Orleans, Patrick Albert and Neil Smith built a friendship likened to brotherhood.
As teenagers, they hung out after school and worked cleaning boats at a neighborhood yacht club. Years later when Hurricane Katrina left Albert, his wife and children homeless, it was Smith who helped the family relocate to Florida.
Here, Albert took a job as the director of maintenance at St. Stephen Catholic Church. He bought a house on Smith's street, and at weekly barbecues, the men's families got to know one another. In the aftermath of the storm, they started anew.
Then, this March, Albert started acting strange. He forgot things. He complained of migraines and slurred his speech. When the left side of Albert's face began to droop, Smith urged him to see a doctor.
Sitting in a hospital waiting room on St. Patrick's Day, Smith received a text message from Albert's wife. The 51-year-old had a tumor on the right side of his brain. Surgery would show that it was terminal cancer.
"Its devastating," Smith said. "He's got four beautiful children and a wife. He's a pillar in the community. He's been through so much already. To have this happen, it's hard."
This week, Albert will begin radiation and chemotherapy to prolong his life. To help with medical expenses, St. Stephen will host a Ragin' Cajun benefit Saturday at the church's annual Spring Jubilee. For years, Albert has manned a booth cooking New Orleans-style Cajun at the event.
Now, friends will heat up skillets in his honor. Smith's wife will make spicy chili. Other dishes will include jambalaya and crab cakes, two of Albert's favorites.
"It's our way of saying thank you to him for his years of service," said Gretchen Robens, the church's communications director. "When we heard the news, it hit us all hard at the church. We are with him all the way."
Because Albert is at risk for seizures, doctors recommended he not stay home alone. So five days a week, someone from the church comes to visit when Sylvia, his wife of 25 years, goes to work. Every afternoon, someone drops off a homecooked dish.
"I have sitters and I'm not that interesting of a guy to sit with," Albert said. "Really, the outpouring of support from the church is overwhelming."
Friends describe Albert as a devoted Catholic, hard worker and family man. He traveled from Florida to New Orleans to rebuild his home, which was destroyed by Katrina. At St. Stephen, he volunteers off the clock wherever needed and helps set up events. As part of the church's men's club, he has helped organize fish fries and golf tournaments.
When a doctor gave him two years to live, he responded with candor.
"I told him that's not for me or you to decide, that's for God to decide," Albert said. "It's not for me to ask why. Bad things happen to good people, but God always gives more than he takes away."
For most of his life, Albert was in good health. Now, he is adjusting to taking pills three times a day. Instead of fixing things at the church and around the house, he reads and watches the Cooking Channel. He spends time with his four sons, ages 15 to 21, and the family dogs.
Despite protests from his wife, Albert said he wants to cook at Saturday's jubilee. He would like to make his famous shrimp creole. At the very least, he hopes to help friends at their booths.
"Its something I've done every year," Albert said. "It benefits the school and I want to be there."
Smith calls his friend a warrior.
"He's strong," Smith said. "He would do anything, anytime for anybody. He gives of himself tirelessly and then he wonders why people like him so much."
Sarah Whitman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2439.