Friday, October 4, 2019

A Eulogy

While I was working on the stories about Ellie's and my move, one of my best friend's cancer took a bad turn. It was brain cancer, diagnosed in late 2015, and when it took this turn, it quickly took his life. He honored me by asking me to do the eulogy. While I absolutely love and enjoy speaking to large groups ( I am a seasoned lector in the Catholic Church, for example ) I am usually reading/delivering/proclaiming someone else's words ( God's usually, I am a lector ). Delivering my own material is quite foreign to me; this was a step outside my comfort zone. Nonetheless, I could not turn my dear friend down ... and really didn't want to.  The eulogy follows:

Before I begin, I want you to know the honor I feel being asked to share Wojtek's story through my eyes. Thank you Margaret, Maya and Philip.

My name is Walter Jost. Wojtek and I worked together at DecisionOne, a computer support company, for many years.

We were part of a help desk, taking phone calls from people with computer problems. Soon after arriving, Wojtek found my voice too loud for him and, seriously but good-naturedly, he told me about it. I seriously considered this, smiled, and replied, good-naturedly, of course, "Wojtek, I am so sorry you feel that way; I hardly ever raise my voice." This interchange shines some light on Wojtek and I'll return to that momentarily.

Wojtek, born and raised in Poland, married his wife, Margaret, in their native Poland, in 1982. Looking to make a better economic life for his family, he came to the United States in the early 90's, eventually settling with a sponsor just across the river in Hudson Wisconsin. At that time, he was completely ignorant of and without interest in computers.

After studying Marketing and Management at the University of Wisconsin at River Falls, Wojtek believed opportunities were much better here than in Poland; Margaret joined him in 1993, after which they had two children, Philip and Maya.

In spite of his limited knowledge of and interest in computers, Seagate hired him. He built disk drives on the assembly line. He became very good at it and this piqued his interest in computers. He went to computer shows, parts stores, built his own computer ( about which I believe I have known for a long time but about which only very recently did he confess to me this computer never actually ran ). He changed jobs a bit, and wound up at DecisionOne, the company from which he ultimately retired. He began in H/W support and then moved into the department I was in ... S/W support.

We read in the Obituary: "Wojtek made many lifelong connections with his humor, kindness, generosity and warmheartedness." I experienced all of those, but as I have reflected on our friendship, the thing that stands out for me is its foundation of truth; that is, Wojtek's ability to acknowledge and confront unpleasant truths and manage them ... which is to say, put them aside, and live his life, never letting the unpleasantness interfere with who he was and what he wanted to be. The problem of the volume of my voice illustrates that. After I responded, we understood each other. We both knew I was too loud for him. He tried to live with it and I tried to control the volume of my voice. The important thing here is, we could talk about it; it was not a divisive issue. Even after I retired we were able to joke about it: he would introduce me to a friend saying, "Walter was the jet engine I sat next to for many years."

Though we were on friendly terms at DecisionOne, I would not say we were friends.

We had a mutual interest in sports, but mine was mostly as a spectator and cheerleader. He was actively involved in Fantasy Football, and easily integrated his love of family with his interest in sports by coaching football, soccer and basketball teams Maya and Philip played on. He even integrated his interest in technology one year by making a video of Philip's football team's season, talking a colleague into creating an animated introduction to the video, and making copies of the video for the other parents.

We spoke often, shared many stories. I knew of his love of playing guitar and riding a bicycle and he knew of my addiction to fountain pens. We really seemed to enjoy one another, but we did not socialize outside of work. When I retired, we mutually agreed that we wanted to stay in touch, and we did, seeing one another often.

The first time we got together after my retirement, we went to a buffet in Edina. There were always empty tables there, so we didn't feel bad spending a lot of time. We also sat in a relatively isolated area so we could talk freely. ( You know of my booming voice ... )

Our talk that evening exemplified another example of the pillar of our relationship. All I remember of that conversation is his admitting to some level of "social awkwardness." I loved him for such an admission, particularly because I, too, felt some of that but was loathe to admit it. This was one of those unpleasant truths, but showed an honesty that was heartwarming and brought us closer together.

After several such dinner meetings, a mutual friend from DecisionOne, Benjamin, joined us and became a fixture. We celebrated our friendship by having dinner at this same place, same time, same day, every month. Though a techie, apparently thinking the maxim that we'd always meet on the third Wednesday of the month sufficed as a reminder, Wojtek refused to put our dinner date in his phone calendar. This inevitably led to his texting one of us, "When are we meeting this month? Is it the sixteenth?"

Benjamin had never golfed, but he suggested we play mini-golf on the course behind the restaurant. Though Wojtek hated golf, he gamely agreed to play. We just enjoyed being outdoors, competing with one another.

Occasionally we just walked ... there was a man-made lake next to the mini-golf course, and much beyond it, and a walking path surrounded it. We'd walk the path. After Wojtek's diagnosis, he didn't always have the energy to walk the entire route so we'd take a short cut. We made this correction to our routine easily, without fanfare.

It was during this time I gained entry into Wojtek's family life. He invited me to come watch his daughter Maya pitch a softball game. I had never seen a fast-pitch softball game, would very much have liked to see Maya pitch and meet her, but that never worked out. When school restarted in the fall, he "pitched" her talent in theater, and suggested I come to a school play to see her perform. Long story short, that worked out, I met both Margaret and Philip in addition to Maya, and saw more plays in our ensuing years. I also witnessed Maya's throwing her arms around her Dad when they'd first meet in the school hallway after a play. I thought it a remarkable display of affection by a high-school girl for her father.

My learning of Wojtek's diagnosis, and his response to the diagnosis, are further examples of his ability to confront and transcend unpleasant facts. With my only knowledge being that he had had some sort of brain surgery, on Christmas eve, 2015, I visited him in his private hospital room. I walked into the room, casually asked, "Hi, Wojtek, how're you?" and tossed my coat and scarf on the chair on the other side of the room.

"Pretty good, considering."

"Considering what?" I nonchalantly asked.

"Considering that I have inoperable brain cancer."

Poohhf. While this hit me like a gut-punch, he was remarkably serene and calm about it all. The biggest complaint he voiced about it then or later was, "I'm screwed."

I remember only a few other things about the visit. His beloved family was coming later to celebrate Christmas and he was looking forward to it. And of course he insisted we'd continue to have our monthly dinner. He was determined to continue to live.

By February the following year we were back at our monthly dinner. Except for his being a little slower, our evenings were much as they had always been.

Ultimately the news from the MRI scans was not so good. Wojtek went into home hospice; I visited him once a week while Margaret was at work. Wojtek and I interacted pretty much as we always had, although he slept more. Eventually he went into the hospice at Our Lady of Peace in St Paul; I continued to visit him.

The cancer eventually won. But Wojtek had fought gamely, continuing to live a life of integrity, refusing to back away from unpleasant realities. Thank You, Wojtek! Godspeed.


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