Monday, Oct. 14, was a tough day, surprisingly even more so than Oct. 12, the day my friend and fellow reporter Steve Wiandt died.
That Saturday became one of the saddest days of my life after getting word that Steve had passed away in the morning while in hospice care at UH Portage Medical Center. But Monday was my first day back to work, and seeing his personal things on his desk near mine was like a punch in the heart.
I was used to not having Steve around in the office. He had been out on a medical leave since March, after he was diagnosed with esophageal cancer. And as he started suffering from complications and setbacks during his final weeks, I knew the recovery that seemed so promising several months ago was probably not going to happen.
But being in the office, seeing his desk — the old portable typewriter he kept there, some books, the family photos, all waiting for his return as all of us here had waited — it hurt. It sank in deep: the miracle that so many had been hoping and praying for, me included, was not going to happen and Steve really was gone.
And I do mean "so many," not just family but also a multitude of friends that Steve probably could never have counted. Steve entered my life when he introduced himself to me in the parking lot of our former Stow office more than a decade ago. That was Steve; he really was one of those people for whom a stranger is a friend he hadn’t yet met. Sometimes when we would have lunch together, Steve would arrive late because he had stopped to chat with someone, a co-worker at their desk or was passing or, if he had to go out to his car to fetch his food, it might be someone he ran into in the parking lot.
After Steve and I met, we became part of an informal group that would eat lunch together. Over time, the others dropped out for various reasons and it became just Steve and me for the most part.
Often, our conversations would be about pop culture, a favorite topic for Steve. We’d talk about movies, television, especially classic shows, music and old-time radio, a special interest of Steve’s. Just hours after discovering Steve had died, I stumbled across a piece of TV trivia that I would have rushed to share with Steve, knowing he would get a kick out of it.
At times, we influenced each other. He got into an old detective series called "Peter Gunn" and started telling me about it so when I found a channel that showed it, I started watching and became a fan, too. For my part, I got him to listen to the Beatles, with George Harrison becoming his favorite. On the other hand, I was never able to get Steve to listen to Eric Clapton and Steve could never get me to appreciate Elvis.
We didn’t see eye to eye on everything, disagreeing on politics for example. But we generally didn’t discuss such weightier subjects, and when we did, it was a gentle disagreement with no acrimony since neither of us wanted something so silly to interfere with our friendship.
When Steve told me he had cancer last March, I was disturbed by it, but I was sure he would beat it. I think it was because I just couldn’t picture a great guy like Steve not being around anymore. And for several months, it seemed like things were going his way. The last time I was able to sit down to eat with Steve, in fact the last time I saw him outside the hospital, was on Aug. 2 when he came into the office for a colleague’s retirement luncheon. He looked good at the time. No one would ever have guessed he had cancer, much less that it would be terminal in just 10 weeks and a day.
But after that, it became clear that the cancer had spread drastically, with complications that effectively shut down treatment. I was able to visit Steve a couple of times when he was at University Hospitals’ Seidman Cancer Center in September, and for the last time, a week before he died, in hospice care at UH Portage. He was able to talk a little during that visit, telling me about a movie we both liked that he had just seen. It felt like old times. We shook hands before I left and I told him I hoped to visit him again soon. This seemed to please him, but over the next couple of days he took a turn for the worse and I respected an understandable request that visits be limited to family.
I’ll always miss those conversations with Steve. I’ll miss his smile and laugh and his gentleness. It was symbolic of the kind of guy he was that his cuss word of choice was "gosh," occasionally spiced up with an added "darn it" (to which I typically responded with a gasp of shock and "Steve, watch your language," followed by an apology and grin from Steve).
I know I wasn’t his best friend. He had far too many friends, some who knew him much longer than I did, for me to believe that. And there is no way I would ever have been as important to him as his beloved wife, Debbie, and son Jameson, and I wouldn’t expect to be. He was a family man through and through.
But I love him like a brother and I believe I had some importance to him. When I was involved in a traffic crash in January 2018, I was touched when he called to make sure I was OK. That was Steve, too.
After my first visit to him at Seidman, Steve texted me, thanking me and another co-worker for coming and he wrote, "it makes me feel unforgotten."
I texted back, "No problem. And believe me, you’re not forgotten."
And never will be.
Reporter Jeff Saunders can be reached at 330-541-9431, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JeffSaunders_RP.