A true friend is someone who thinks that you are a good egg even though he knows that you are slightly cracked. Bernard Meltzer
Today was my friend J.T.’s birthday…he turned 68, which for anybody else, doesn’t sound like a big deal, but J.T. was supposed to be dead 20 years ago.
I first met J.T. in the spring of 1999 through a local publishing company…J.T. was looking for someone to do the press for his manuscript, a satire loosely based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I was provided a copy of the final draft of the book, which I read before the meeting.
The publisher had given me some background on J.T. before we met…he had survived a bout with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma a few years before (he later told me he had been given six weeks to live in 1990). He was a confirmed bachelor who lived with his elderly mother. He liked cats. He was extremely intelligent. He had been a “bean counter” for a major corporation before being forced to retire due to illness.
We met in the publisher’s office. I had no idea what to expect…J.T. came in and the owner introduced us. He was of medium height, extremely slim, pale, and had just a small ring of white hair on his mostly bald head. Wearing a fisherman knit pullover and dress pants, he looked older than his almost 57 years. J.T. wore glasses, and carried a briefcase. I would soon discover he had two other pairs of glasses he constantly called into service as the need arose.
I don’t remember much of that first meeting, except that I was nervous. I remember complimenting him on his work…it was good – funny, poetic, and descriptive, all at the same time! J.T. talked about his book, and what he was looking for in the way of press releases. He was very direct, to the point of bluntness at times…there was nothing “touchy-feely” about him – he was all business! He scared the hell out of me!
We completed the press stuff over the next few months. While we were working on that, the publisher had run into a major legal glitch…publication of J.T.’s book wasn’t going to happen any time soon. It was soon afterward that our assocation became more personal than professional.
We started going out to lunch on J.T.’s birthday. He was shocked that I would even remember it – he often didn’t. J.T. always insisted on paying, even though it was his birthday…I once tried to slip the waitress some cash while he was in the washroom, and he caught us! He literally grabbed the cash out of her hand, gave it back to me, and presented her with his credit card!
Lunches with J.T. were always interesting…he is a right-wing conservative, and I’m a left-wing liberal – we’d have spirited discussions about politics, and fling double-entendres across the table. He is detail-oriented to the point of being anal-retentive, and I am Queen of the Procrastinators! He’s cynical, and I’m a Pollyanna! I’m a mom, and he’s never had any children. He used to joke about being a “dirty old man”…he’d had relationships, but never found anyone he wanted to be with permanently. I’ve regaled him with the gory details of my dating over the years (whether he wanted to know or not). Over lunch, I discovered that J.T. loved music and books as much as I do, and once I visited him in his home, found that we shared a love for beautiful antiques. J.T. has a fondness for England, and has travelled there many times as an adult. He told me about growing up being raised by his mother and grandmother…he was an only child, and spent a lot of time being sick in bed. J.T. used the time to read every book he could get his hands on…consequently, he could shame many of the contestants on Jeopardy.
J.T.’s mother passed away a few years after we met…he sold the house and moved into a one-bedroom apartment. My dad helped him move…there were at least forty boxes of books!
One year when I called to invite J.T. out for his birthday lunch, he told me that the cancer had come back, and that he wasn’t up to going out. He called me at Christmastime though, and invited me to come for a traditional English high tea. J.T. had inherited the family dishes…complete with silver tea service and three-tiered ceramic serving plates. He made all the finger sandwiches himself (lobster, roast beef, and cucumber), and sugar cookies for dessert. He ordered a fruit flan from the local grocery store. Also in attendance were J.T.’s other friends, two women who had helped him when his mother was alive.
We arrived at J.T.’s tiny apartment, where floor-to-ceiling shelves held thousands of books, DVDs, CDs, and knickknacks. We made ourselves comfortable on the antique furniture, gingerly balancing our teacups as we munched sandwiches and made small talk. We always left with full stomachs! All my friends were jealous when I told them about J.T.’s Christmas teas!
About four years ago, I called J.T. in early October to make arrangements for his birthday lunch. He casually mentioned that he had been in hospital with a heart attack in September, and almost died! I hit the roof! I told him that if anything like that ever happened again, he was to call me! “That’s what friends are for!” I told him. He protested that there wasn’t anything I could have done…I repeated that I still wanted to know!
J.T. mostly just watched me eat at lunch that time…his doctor had him on a very strict diet! Two bouts with cancer had killed a lot of his appetite anyway. He seemed pleased with the Thorne Smith book I gave him for his birthday, though: The Glorious Pool, a hilarious farce from the 1930’s.
In 2008, I spoke to J.T. in the fall…I wasn’t able to make birthday lunch with him because I had a bad cold…an infection could kill him! J.T. explained that he was getting ready to start another round of chemo…the cancer was back for Round 3. He was scheduled to begin December 1st.
I didn’t call J.T. last year, although I thought about him several times…I think I was afraid to call and find out his number had been disconnected. I had no way of knowing if he passed away. I was also really busy with “stuff” going on in my own life…being laid off from my job and the birth of my first granddaughter.
This morning, I dialled J.T.’s number, hoping he would pick up…he did! I said, “Happy Birthday…did you remember?” After a stunned silence, J.T. said, “Wendy?” He was genuinely pleased to hear from me! It wasn’t long before we were back to our old bantering back and forth, although we didn’t cover politics before construction workers at his apartment building made it impossible for us to continue our phone conversation.
J.T. explained that he had just had a bone marrow sample taken, and that there was “something going on again.” In his resigned way, he sighed, “It’s just going to get worse.” Optimism is not something J.T.’s ever been noted for! We couldn’t meet for lunch today, because he was still “weak as a kitten” from five months of chemo, and I’m still recovering from my fall cold. Disappointing, but not the end of the world…we’ll do lunch next year for J.T.’s 69th!
Love ya, J.T.! Happy Birthday, you old fart!