Friday, September 21, 2012

Grandpa Mike

"Can't complain." Those were final words my Grandpa Mike said to me.  Funny since he spent a good portion of his 93 years complaining.  My father had called me a couple hours earlier and left a message asking how I was doing.  I knew immediately, something was wrong.  When I called he told me that situation was pretty dire.  I needed to call him while I still could.  So I called my aunt to speak to him.  The conversation was brief.  He was very out of it but knew who I was and that I was in Texas.  I knew it was going to be the last time I'd speak to him again.  The tears streamed down my face as I hung up the phone.  Who is ever really prepared to make that phone call in life?  He was the only grandpa I've ever known.  I was filled with regret that I couldn't see him those final few weeks.  I was in Texas though and that's how he wanted it.  I knew grandpa wanted me to move forward with my life...wherever that would be.

When I moved to Austin, I did so with very few regrets.  One regret I did have was leaving my grandpa in Chicago.  Being in his nineties, I knew my chances to see him again would be few and far between.  My grandpa encouraged me though to move forward with my plans.  It was in January of 2011 that I made that decision.  Both my grandpa and I were living at my parents’ house.  I was saving money preparing for my cross country move.  My grandpa was there on his monthly "time share" visit to his daughter’s house.  He had been alternating homes every month between his four children.  While some people would find that a burden I found it blessing.  We got to see so much of him the last few years.  He really got to know all his grand kids as adults.  While I planned my move to Austin, I shared every detail with him.  I remember even showing him Google maps pictures of Austin.  He was amazed at the technology of our generation. He even shared a few stories of when he lived in Texas while in the army.  He knew that moving would be good for me.

My grandpa's long and amazing life reads like 20th century America history textbook.  The youngest of eight children he was the only one born here in the United States.  His family had just fled the communist takeover of what would be soon called Yugoslavia a year earlier.  He lived as a teenager through the Great Depression.  In his mid-20's he was drafted because his boss forgot to mail in his deferment.  He soon took to the battlefields of North Africa and Italy.  He fought against the Nazis and the Italian Fascists.  He was even one of the few Americans to see the body of Mussolini strung up in Milan after he was killed.  Later after the war, he stayed an additional six months serving as a translator for the Allied troops on the Yugoslavia-Italian border.  Simply put, there were not many people who could speak Serbian-Croatian language.  It was  while living there that he was notified by the Red Cross of the birth of his first child Patricia.  He later had three more children, including my mother Sandy.  He later spent his postwar years working the steel mills in Chicago, fishing in Minnesota and vacationing in Florida.  He would in the end have four children, seven grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.  He did this all with his beloved wife, my grandma Margaret "Dolly" Milanovich by his side

It was on August 31st when I received the call that I had been expecting.  He finally succumbed after fighting for three weeks.  A lesser man would have lasted a few days but Grandpa Mike was a stubborn Serbian man.  He wasn't ready to leave this world yet.  He wanted to know if Jay Cutler would ever lead the Bears to the Super Bowl.  He was looking forward to a new Bulls season and how Derrick Rose's return would go.  And of course I can't forget the Chicago Cubs.  He would have kept watching them forever no matter how much they disappointed him.  I'll never agree with him on that but I always admired his loyalty.  

So I when I went home a couple weeks ago for the service it was a bittersweet reunion.  It's always comforting to see family and friends even under times of duress.  But I felt certain emptiness in the house with my grandpa not being there.  I watched the Bears opener with my dad that weekend.  I had watched the season opener one year earlier with my dad and grandpa.  I just happened to be in town for a wedding last year.  Looking back I feel so lucky to have been given the chance to do that one last time.  As sad as I feel right now, there are certain memories that bring a smile to my face.  I'll remember our last Christmas we had together. My grandpa got pissed because we tried to make him eat before the Bulls game was over.  I'll cherish that memory of him forever.  I'm not sure if anyone  else in the room appreciated how great that was.

I'm still pretty sad  but I do feel unbelievably lucky to have had him my life for so long.  Most people don't get to have their grandpa attend their 30th birthday dinner.  He packed a lot of living in those 93 years and we all can only hope to be so lucky.  When I was home this month,  my mom was telling me stories about him.  She told me that she would tell him laku noć before bed every night.  That means goodnight in Serbian.  So I want the chance to say it one last time to him.  Laku noć grandpa, love you.

In memory of Michael Milanovich


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