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.

In which I say good-bye to my mom

Or as Tom put it, The Book of Claudia, Chapter 1. (And thanks again, Tom, for reading this at the memorial).
Donna Joan Johnston Konicki. As Shakespeare said… a Rose by any other name…

And in her case, certainly the story worth the telling and remembering.

The story of a small girl of 7 or 8 who came home from school and announced to her family she would no longer answer to the name Donna. There was a girl in her class named Donna who Picked. Her. Nose. And she didn't want to be mistaken for HER! From then on, she declared, her name would be JoAn. And don't think a small child's will won't be followed. From then on, she simply refused to answer to Donna. Ignored anyone who called her Donna, even her parents. Unless and until they called her JoAn, they did not exist. (One can only imagine the closed-eye stare she must have given everyone.)

JoAn grew up in the East End of Dayton during the Great Depression – an experience that no doubt explains her habit of saving twist ties, rubber bands and magazines. She came of age in the Downtown Dayton of the War Years. Later she would tell stories of going downtown to the movies or shopping and working in the bargain basement of a now non-existent department store. Other stories of the hardships her parents endured to raise her and the rest of their children – Grandpa walking to work every day to save the nickel carfare so that on Sundays he could take his children out for ice cream, Grandma boiling chicken feet for soup. On the fourth of July they'd have feasts of fresh corn on the cob and fresh watermelon in the backyard. That was the entire meal. She always said they didn't know they were poor, because everyone was poor.

As the Depression eased and the War started, Grandma opened her home to GI's in need of a meal or just in need of the comforts of home. Uncle Gene would bring home his buddies and through that connection she met a young man from North Dayton whom she later married.

JoAn was born 18 months before the start of the Great Depression. She lived to see the start and finish of many Wars…WWII, The Cold War, the Korean War, Vietnam. Television was still in its infancy, a transatlantic flight was a novelty and computers, space flight and moon walks were the stuff of science fiction.

She turned 80 last year. We had a big celebration of her life. Everyone was asked to record their memories of Aunt Joan. In re-reading the stories from her nieces and nephews there is one central theme…laughter. Everyone remembers the laughter when she was around. Laughing for joy at being with her family – her siblings, her nieces and nephews and her children. Playing games. Reading. But mostly, the laughter.

People remember her creativity – the sewing and crafting, the knitting and crocheting. Nieces remember proudly wearing clothes she made for them. Nephews remember playing board games and Uno. But everyone remembers the laughter. She might have sometimes sounded like that silly dog in the cartoons when she laughed, but that didn't stop her. She just laughed harder when we pointed it out to her.

She loved to spend time with her sister, Virginia. She once told someone that visiting Virginia was like going to her own little cabin in the woods.

She never stopped missing her mother, her father and Tom, the brother who died in young adulthood. And she loved her baby brother Ned most of all.

The second half of her life was hard for her. After her husband died she had to make her way in a world she was unprepared to take on. That didn't stop her. When her own business failed, she went to work at Saint E's and ran their gift shop for many years. And as her children grew up and left the nest the laughter didn't come as easily to her, but still she managed to hang on to her sense of humor and her ability to see the absurdity in everyday situations. As she aged and life kept throwing her curveballs she began to lose that capacity. But still, when among family that old spark would light up her eyes and she'd enthusiastically join in whatever joking and story telling was going on around her.

We'll miss her. Our lives are all richer for having known her. She was our sister, our grandmother, our mother, our aunt and our friend. Rest in peace, little Joan, and know that someday we will see you again. And when we do, we'll be sure to call you Joan so you recognize us.