Memories of a Lifetime

Sunday, July 19, 2009

In which I remember a friend

The following was written in May of 1999 when my friend Jim Matuszak died of an unknown disease. He was in his mid-50's when he died. I didn't make any edits to what I wrote then.

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Jim and I became friends about 8 years ago.

I was working at PMCI as a proofreader, and he had recently been hired as a copywriter.

No one who knows me would ever expect me to be "only a proofreader" - I took this responsibility seriously. Sometimes, I'd find myself in the role of editor, too - not major editing, mostly corrections to grammar and punctuation, although occasionally I'd make suggestions for changes to copy where I'd had to re-read a section to understand what the writer was trying to tell me.

As you can well imagine, the suggestions of a lowly proofreader did not sit well with our friend Jim - I will always remember how he'd bristle at the sound of me saying "Jim, I've just reviewed this copy and…"

Finally one day I told him, "Look Jim, this is my job. I'm supposed to question this stuff. I am not criticizing your writing, nor am I trying to change it. I am only making suggestions that I think will help the flow of the copy."

He sat back, did that little shake that he did when a realization came to him and asked me what my suggestion was for the copy in hand.

That was the end of that - after that, he always listened to my comments, responded to them and sometimes even made the changes I recommended.

He considered me his friend.

Shortly after that, we discovered we had two very important things in common - we were both Polish and we both had the same birthday - February 5th. (Pardon me for saying this one last time, Jim, but it was in different years.)

He used to tell me that his sister's birthday was June 5th, and he must have been conceived on her birthday. No matter how many times I told him he had the math wrong, he persisted in believing it.

As we got to know each other, we took delight in the things we had in common and had many conversations as to whether there could actually be something to all that astrological "crap" - sometimes it was even as if we were thinking the same things at the same time.

We shared a love of music … movies … baseball … words and wordplay. We had a shared sense of irony and recognition of absurdity and injustice… our politics were the same … we had the same "quirky" sense of humor … and most of all we shared a love of Star Trek and its vision of a better, brighter future.

When the little day-to-day happenings in his life got him down, he knew he could come to me to rant. I don't think I ever helped him much, but at least he could get things off his chest and know I'd never hold anything he said against him.

Around PMCI he gained a reputation of being the "abominable no-man" because he was always the one to find the negative in any plan or creative anyone would come up with. But he always stood his ground and fought for what he believed in, and in so doing gained the respect of his co-workers. And when he became ill with Hodgkin's disease, we all stood by him while he fought it -- amazed at his grace and dignity, his perseverance and faith that he would get through it. His positive attitude in the face of what must have been the scariest thing he'd ever had to face was truly inspirational to us all. We gained a new respect for him during this time, realizing that if he could maintain his sense of humor and be so upbeat through the chemo and radiation therapy there really must be more to him than what we had thought.

Make no mistake, he was scared. He didn't want to die. He was prepared for it then, but he wasn't ready for it. I remember he made me a music tape then, entitled "I'm No Angel - Not Yet", featuring "angel songs". I still have it. I think I'll keep it for a long time to come.

When another co-worker of ours, Dick Niswander - who Jim had known for years - was dying of cancer, Jim honored him by suggesting we name our annual Hospice fund-raising efforts for him. In a more Matuszak-like fashion, he grew a beard in Dick's honor. Dick had had a beard for as long as anyone could remember. Jim grew a beard to prove that he still could (the radiation treatments had killed hair follicles), and also to honor Dick in the only way he could think of.

A couple of years ago, Jim, Tom Johnston and I started going to lunch nearly every day. We soon realized that each day our lunches were becoming more and more Seinfeld-esque. I dubbed us "Jerry, George and Elaine", and we'd make our receptionist laugh each day when we left by saying, "Jerry, George and Elaine are going to lunch." (I'll leave it up to you to figure out which one was George.) When we'd get back, we'd have to fill her in on whatever the adventure of the day was.

We'd laugh, we'd discuss office and national politics, we'd listen to music and sing along, and we'd nearly always have a problem at whatever restaurant had been chosen. Jim never hesitated to complain either, about the things that were wrong - be it the food, the service or whatever it was. I guess he figured life was too short to eat an underdone steak. I won't hesitate to speak for Tom here when I say we'll never be able to complain at a restaurant again without invoking Jim's memory.

When my ex-husband and I split up almost 2 years ago, Jim quietly "set his cap" for me. When I had to tell him I didn't think of him "that way", he accepted it, without rancor or bitterness. Our friendship continued, unchanged, unmarked by events.

I actually found out through Tom how Jim felt about me. Jim had told Tom, who came to talk to me about it. I worried about what to do, I didn't want to lose my friendship with Jim, but I couldn't allow him to believe something was there that wasn't. Tom said to me, "Claudia, I think Jim needs to just move back to Cleveland, find himself a nice, middle-aged, divorced Polish woman with a couple of kids and marry her."

I remember looking at Tom in surprise and saying, "Tom. Don't you see? That's what he thinks he's got here, with me!"

Thank you, Tom, for not thinking of me as middle-aged.

I mentioned earlier that we shared a love of movies and of Star Trek. When Jim and Tom and I were out and about together, one of the things we'd often do was quote movie dialogue.

There's a line we used to make fun of from Star Trek II, The Wrath of Khan, which seems particularly fitting to me now. We'd exaggerate it, and laugh about Shatner's delivery - his "chewing up the scenery" - but I can't help but think Jim would like it said about him. It comes from a scene where Kirk is delivering the eulogy for his friend, Mr. Spock. He says, "Of my friend I can only say this. Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most … human."

I know that he must have accepted this recent illness with the same grace and dignity that he did the Hodgkins. I know that he wasn't really ready to go, and I'm grateful to him for fighting as hard as he did. We will all miss him. Our world, our universe if you will, will not be the same without him.

Good bye, Jim. I have been, and always shall be, your friend.

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