The Rites of Friendship

Tom Kiske met Mitch Kordonowy the first day of school at McKinley, in September, 1957, and they immediately became not just friends, but best friends. They did everything together, including seeing Alfred Hitchcock's "Psycho" at least 4 times and trying to break the McKinley record for sit-ups. They graduated together in 1961. After Tom left St. Louis, they saw each other mostly at class reunions, but in 1995, Tom, Mitch and four other McKinley buddies got together for their own mini-reunion. The group had such a good time they've gathered every year since. At the first get-together, they bought a "last man" bottle of wine and each of them inscribed something appropriately irreverent on the label. At the time, it was done as a lark. Now, though, the bottle bears a small tag with Mitch's name and dates and the words, "First to go, but a friend forever." Mitch Kordonowy passed away on November 26, 2003. The following story relates Tom's last visit with his best friend.



Despite the Levitical injunction, I have lain with a man. He was my friend. He asked me to and I couldn’t turn him down. His wife was in the bedroom with us.

“I don’t know if you’d mind,” Mitch said, “and I’m not trying to convert you, but would you just lie beside me on the bed for a few minutes?”

“Tom probably wouldn’t be comfortable with that,” Madline said, offering me an easy way out. In my younger days, I might have grabbed it. Things are different now.

“Doesn’t bother me a bit,” I said, walking around and easing aboard the far side of the big four-poster.

Mitch Kordonowy

Mitch lay on his side, unconcerned with his state of partial undress. Madline arranged a pillow behind him and covered him with the sheet. I scooted up behind him, separated only by the pillow and bed linens. His hand came up and I grasped it in mine. His grip was still strong, but Mitch was tired.

I’d flown up to St. Louis from Houston to see him that morning. As important as this visit was, until the very last minute I wasn’t sure I’d be able to come. Serious things were happening at home as well, but my wife convinced me that this was a trip that wouldn’t wait. She would handle things on the home front. The flight afforded me two hours to think about what I could say to a man I’d known for 46 years, an enduring friendship, but one which would not survive the year. Mitch had colon cancer. Only weeks, perhaps days, remained to him. I was going there to say goodbye. How do you do that?

Tom Kiske

I 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 advanced 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, too.

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 me up.

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 help with.

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.

“Yeah?”

“See ya.”

“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
kiske1@chilitech.com


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 Mitchell Kordonowy award to recognize exemplary volunteer efforts.