didn’t even know what
I’d find when I
got there. He slept a lot and the cancer had invaded his liver, so toxins
in Mitch’s bloodstream sometimes altered him mentally. I wasn’t
sure we’d even be able to talk. And if we could, what would we
say? Guys don’t often talk about serious stuff. In almost half
a century of friendship we’d shared a lot of goofing around, a
ton of jokes and fun, a bit of competition, but not much that would serve
as preface to a final conversation. One thing was sure: I had to be strong,
to show no sadness or tears.
We had known this
time would come. When Mitch was first diagnosed, the cancer was already
and the prognosis was not good. They’d
given him fourteen months. That was thirteen months ago.
The obituaries always phrase it in terms of a “courageous battle with cancer,” and
Mitch was a fighter. He’d had the initial surgery and then several rounds
of chemo. When his hometown medical center gave up, he and Madline traveled to
Sloan Kettering in New York. When that institution threw in the towel, my wife
and I encouraged them to come to Houston.
“We have some of the best cancer facilities in the world here,” I’d
said, “Plus, you’ve got free room and board at our place and use
of a car as long as you need.”
They considered it, but time ran out. Conventional therapies exhausted, Mitch
got into a clinical trial at Washington University, but after only a couple of
treatments, it was clear the experimental new regimen had done nothing to halt
or even slow the spread of this foul disease. He was dropped from the study.
You can fight only so long. You can struggle as long as there is some fabric
of hope, no matter how flimsy or threadbare. When the docs tell you there’s
nothing more they can do and utter that chilling admonition to “get your
affairs in order,” what are you supposed to do then? You’ve lost
the battle, but you linger on. Waiting.
For thirteen months, I’d tried to be Mitch’s cheerleader, calling
him from Houston every week or two to see how things were going, to tell him
of some cancer research article I’d read, to share a chuckle over some
of our adolescent antics, or just to let him talk. I tried to end every conversation
with a joke. Always leave him laughing, I thought.
I knew a little
about cancer, having had prostate surgery two years ago. I knew what
it meant to
have someone on your side and how important
a phone call or a card can be when you’re in the grip of the Big
Nasty trying to drag you down. My wife had been through it with me, and
she formed a special bond with Madline.
I tried to encourage our mutual friends to stay in touch with Mitch,
too. They did their best, but they weren’t as deeply involved as
my wife and I. That’s not to say they didn’t generously offer
their help, it’s
just that they hadn’t walked this particular valley. Besides, it can
be awkward even to initiate a conversation with someone in Mitch’s condition.
Hell, ninety-five percent of male conversations start with, “Hey, how
ya doin?” We all knew how Mitch was doing. He was dying. Mitch knew it,
As the battle went downhill, my role changed. I could no longer pretend there
was hope. I couldn’t feign optimism without betraying the trust of a
friendship that had always been based on honesty. In my calls I could only
try to let Mitch know I cared and that I was with him. At times even that rang
hollow to me. It was too damn little, but it was all I had to offer.
The time came when Mitch was too weak to even come to the phone, and so my
conversations were with Madline. “How’s our boy today,” I’d ask, and she would fill me
in on how he’d slept the night before or how bad the abdomen-swelling ascites
was. Now it was Madline I tried to leave with something - anything - positive
or comforting. It didn’t always work. Sometimes it was she who cheered
I took to sporadically sending little “Care Packages” - some photographs
of Mitch and me as teenagers, a few mementos from high school, and once even
a picture of Mitch and an old girlfriend. Another time, I found a toy pool
table and sent it along to recall our days as aspiring “Fast Eddie’s.”
Finally, Mitch was needing oxygen. The last countdown was near.
By the time I got off the plane, I’d figured out a few things Mitch and
I might talk about, but sitting with him, he rattled on instead about the details
of his disease and treatment. Although his labored breathing made speaking
difficult, I could scarcely get in a word. This was not the talk we needed.
Was he still fighting, still refusing to acknowledge the inevitable? Or was
he just on autopilot?
After a while, Madline announced that the lawyers had arrived. There were papers
to be signed - part of the “ordering of affairs.” I excused myself,
saying I’d grab a sandwich someplace and call back after the lawyers
left to see if Mitch was still up to company.
When I returned, Mitch was calmer. We chatted in the living room for a few
minutes and then, when he said he was tired, I helped him back to bed. It was
time to talk for real.
I asked him if he was scared.
“No, God has His plans,” he said, “And it’s not up to
us to question them.”
I asked if there was anything he felt he was leaving unfinished that I could
He thought for a moment, then said, “Just try to make my son understand
who I was.” He talked about how his sisters and his daughters had come
to visit him and how he’d had each of them lie in bed beside him. Then
he asked me to do the same.
“It just feels so good, Tom,” he said.
Holding hands, lying together on what might be Mitch’s deathbed, we talked
about love and how it is the most important thing there is. I thought of something
from my Irish heritage.
“Mitch, we’ve been friends for over forty years,” I said.
He murmured a soft “Uh-huh.”
“Well, you know what? I think it’s more than that. I think you and
I were friends before we were born, and we’ll be friends long after we’re
both gone. We’re friends of each other’s souls.”
He didn’t answer, but squeezed my hand to show he understood. “And,
you know what,” I said, forcing a chuckle, “I don’t
know if we’ll end up in the same place or not, but if we do, man, they
better watch out!”
We were both choking back sniffles by then. I couldn’t do this much longer
and he needed to rest. It was time to go. “Mitch,” I said, “Remember
how, back in high school, at the end of the day when we went our separate ways,
we never used to say goodbye.”
“Right,” he whispered, “‘Cuz we knew we’d see each
other the next day.”
I got up and walked around to his side of the bed, stroked my friend’s
head and looked into his eyes for what we both knew would be the last time.
“So, I’m gonna tell you like we used to say back then, buddy - not
goodbye, but just ‘See ya’. I don’t know where or when, Mitch,
but I will see you again.”
A trace of a smile flitted across his face. I gripped his shoulder for a moment,
then turned and walked away.
“Tom,” he called softly as I reached the door.
“You betcha, Mitch,” I said, “See ya buddy.” Then I
turned out the light so my friend could sleep.
It was after midnight, alone in the motel room, when the tears came.
Tom Kiske '61
Mitch Kordonowy generously donated his time and talents to a number of
community activities, including Junior Achievement and the YMCA's Y-Read
program, which he continued even while undergoing chemotherapy. In
recognition of his outstanding dedication, the YMCA has inaugurated an annual
Kordonowy award to recognize exemplary volunteer efforts.