We were related by only the most tenuous of threads—he was my fiancé’s brother’s father-in-law. I had met him maybe five times over the last 10 months, and we had bonded over our shared love of Disney and Chicago architecture.
And his love eclipsed mine heartily on both counts. He had been fascinated by Walt Disney’s sense of design since his childhood in Belgrade. And when he wrote Walt to express his admiration, Walt sent him a personal note along with some sketches. The response led to a lifelong passion for all things Disney, including annual trips to the parks and a museum-scale collection of cels, posters, sculptures, books, decorations and DVDs lovingly organized in endless displays that dominated his basement.
But Disney was just his hobby. He made his living as an architect, and he had been on the design team behind Chicago’s mighty CNA Plaza. His colleagues even attribute the building’s iconic red color to him. I’d always admired that building—especially the bold color that rocked its stoic International Style dignity, imbuing it with unmistakable new charisma. And it was a personal thrill for me to meet one of the minds behind it.
I could tell from the moment I met him and his wife that they had won the lottery with each other. They’d enjoyed almost five decades of marriage and raised two children and doted over five grandchildren together, and they were still best friends. Effortlessly, happily best friends. They’d integrated their Serbian culture into their American identities, peppering their world with Slavic customs and expressions. Their children and grandchildren called them Baka and Deka (I’m guessing on the spellings here as I’m finding a range of options on the Internet) instead of Grandma and Grandpa. Uncle Justin was Cika Justin, and on the day I met the whole family I became Cika Jake, an honor I wear with extreme pride. And the occasional happy tear in the corner of my eye.
Deka had been winning a seven-year battle against an insidious, stubbornly persistent brain cancer when I met him last fall. But when he got home from (where else?) a Disney cruise with his family earlier this summer, the cancer started to win … and with alarming swiftness. There was a day almost a month ago where we were told he had only a matter of hours to live. But he rallied, and a week later we all took him out for baked apple pancakes, one of his favorites. He made a special effort to thank me for joining his family before we packed him and his wheelchair back in his van—an undertaking that took four adults to accomplish.
Unfortunately, it was a short rally. He died Friday morning in his home, surrounded by the people who loved him.
There was a family get-together that evening, and Justin and I stayed until about 10:00. Then we drove all night to Iowa so Justin could finally meet my entire family and see where I grew up. (One anecdote: Justin was attempting to play Battleship with my nephew … with my niece’s dubious assistance. She eventually leaned over to my nephew and stage-whispered, “Is he a part of our family?” When my nephew and Justin couldn’t give her an answer, she eventually asked me. One guess what I told her.) We got back to Chicago at midnight on Sunday and spent all day Monday at the funeral, where the immediate family adorned its somber black suits and dresses with Mickey Mouse ties and pins.
A Serbian Orthodox funeral is a beautiful memorial, rich with chants and rites and traditions both in the church and at the gravesite. I was honored to be included as part of the private family events, but as the newest member of the extended family, I tried to keep in the background, staying on Kleenex alert and entertaining the youngest granddaughters when they got impatient during the service.
I am sorry to have known Deka for such a short time, but I’m richer for having witnessed his legacy first-hand: an unselfconscious love for the creative work of a childhood hero, a string of architectural landmarks, fond accolades from his colleagues, and a shining example of a happy, loving, triumphantly successful relationship that I vow to emulate for the next 50 years with Justin.
I’ve been grandparent-less since 1999, so I’ve already made plans to adopt Baka as my own and make sure she never feels lonely—even though her own grandchildren are probably going to exhaust her with their own love and concern. And I’ll give Deka’s big red landmark a big sweaty hello every Saturday morning when I find myself running south of the Loop: