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


Sunday, September 2, 2012

How Did I Get Here?

As the hipster cyclist in the Chicago Bulls hat handed me a Pabst Blue Ribbon I sat there absorbing my surroundings.  I was sitting in my backyard on a typical sultry summer night in Austin.  Not much much different than most other nights.  My roommate and his goofy friends were there celebrating his girlfriend's 30th birthday.  The atmosphere was light, almost too relaxed.  It was a far cry from all the craziness, not to mention -10 bone chilling cold on the streets of Chicago nineteen months earlier.  I remembered when I gathered with my friends and family downtown to celebrate my 30th birthday.  I had come such a long way in such a short amount of time.  All the sudden the lyrics to the Talking Heads song Same as it Ever Was streamed through my brain.  "How did I get here?"

A year and half later I still haven't been able to answer that question and I don't think it matters.  When I gathered my friends and family at the Rocket Bar that cold night I knew there was no looking back.  Sure, I was scared of the unknown future ahead of me.  But I was even more frightened by thought of not trying.  Leaving Chicago was the hardest decision I ever made.  But I knew in this life you might not get a second chance.  So a mere five weeks later I said my goodbyes, packed my bags hit the highway.  As I pulled onto the I-55 ramp south towards St. Louis, the snow flurries melted away into the background.  I was headed towards a new but very uncertain future.

Today marks the eighteen month mark of my move to Austin.  Not really a significant anniversary but a good benchmark to reflect on where I'm at.  The last year and half have been a amazing journey for me.  It's full of highs and lows, thrills and anxieties, love and loneliness.  But through and through it all everything has felt so much more real here.  My relationships here in Austin and with my friends and family back home.  Everything that I once took for granted in life, I now appreciate in profound new way.  Every time I go home to see love ones it feels like a holiday.  Meanwhile here in Austin, every relationship I've made feels more significant too.  In a sense I've never felt more alive.  I've had my share of rough patches here.  I've lived through disappointment and self-doubt.  There has been several times where I was almost ready to give up.  Times where I lost faith in myself and thought this was too hard to achieve.  Every time things felt bleak though, somebody new would walk into my life.  Somebody to show all this town has to offer.  I may had be ready to give up on this town but Austin had a way of always pulling me back in.  By the spring of 2012 some of those doubts still lingered.  But I was determined to stick it out for better or worse.  Then one night, while I was at your typical hipster Austin coffee shop, two amazing people walked into my life.  Things have not been quite the same ever since.  Austin still wasn't done with me just yet.

My experience in Austin may still be a work in progress.  But now I face it with new sense of optimism that I didn't have before.  While there is still much work to be done, I do feel a real sense of purpose here.  People were right, it does take time to adjust and become part of the community.  For the longest time my experience here felt like one long, strange vacation.  Now though, it's beginning to feel like home.