It feels like I’m writing one of those school assignments. My Dad: My Hero – you know what I’m talking about! The feelings that arise are those of a little girl, having the need to share a bit of who he was – and thus, who she is – with you.
It has taken me a long time, two years, to pick up and write this, but those of you who have gone through this can understand. Slowly, missing the man that gave me half of who I am is becoming tangible. The shock of my father’s illness, leading to his passing, is loosening its grip, and in comes a wave of desire to let the whole world about the man who physically left us.
So, I am asking you to sit back for a second and read the story of someone who means the world to me.
My dad, Djoka, was born in Montenegro, Yugoslavia, in 1927 (Aquarius, just like his daughter). He always seemed the same age when I was growing up, since he was already an “old man” when I, the last child, was born.
His mother died while giving birth to him; thus, he was taken care of by 12 (or so) siblings and an extremely patriarchal father – a disciplinarian of Montenegrin measures (readers from my country now have a painful expression on their faces … yes, it means a lot of whooping, Yugo-style!).
As the youngest and smallest child, he was the one responsible for herding the goats. His curiosity and high level of energy compelled him, while he was herding, to comb through the mountains around Titograd, now Podgorica, and find every little rock, creek, and cave. This knowledge would come in handy when the Nazis invaded an
d he was forced at gunpoint to guide them through the terrain … but that is an epic story for another bottle of wine. His brothers have told us how he could never sit still; he always had to be on the move, searching, investigating, exercising, finding. (Now, that sounds familiar…)
After a short lifetime with a long history – going to war at age 14, getting injured and landing in an Italian war hospital, getting married and having two children at 18, and ideologically standing up against the Communist party and going to jail for years – he was struck with ants in the pants again, and took a job as a mechanic and driver for a Yugoslavian export company (Yugo Export, for those in the know).
He first saw my mother from his truck window while driving one day … or at least that is the romanticized story I like to believe in. In true movie fashion, he saw her and knew that this was the woman in his heart, even though she was 19, he was 36, he had a family, and, lo and behold, she had one, too. This was a big no-no in those times of old-school, post-war, newly Communist and anal-retentive Yugoslavia. But that is also a story for another type of drink and night.
So far, we have established the fact that he was an adventurer, a true patriot, a down and dirty hard worker, an idealist, and last but surely not least, a hopeless romantic. Or should I say hopeful. My Dad had this way of being in the world that would sometimes remind me of a child. He loved eating and his eyes would light up every time he had dinner, which my mom so carefully prepared for him. (He said this was because he remembered not always having enough to eat as a child, and especially in jail.) His face often had a smiley, content expression, and he was especially good at playing pranks, making jokes, and wanting everyone to laugh, constantly.
When something was wrong with the world, such as famine or unfair politics, he would wear his emotions on his sleeve and get angry (argue loudly with the TV) or shed tears for the unfortunate ones. But, as he said, he was “NOT crying, just being emotional and passionate.” Right, Dad.
He was a man for justice and truth and compassionate love for unfortunate beings, and he would go on and on about this until our ears got sore. He would preach this at any given moment – when he wasn’t trying to make people laugh, of course. I cannot tell you how many times I saw this man get his utopian belief in people stepped on. He was truly one of the few men that had a naïveté, which seemed unnatural for a man of his age. It was not a matter of blind trust – for Pete’s sake, he fought Hitler and the Nazis with Tito’s army – but I think he just wanted to give every single person the benefit of the doubt, and I also think he was sometimes in complete denial about humanity.
Something else that permeated his, and our, lives, was the love he had for my mother. This was a love of indescribable measure, and as they got older, it just became more intense. The two of them were inseparable, and even though sparks flew when they argued, somehow they always managed to laugh together a few days later. Even in his last hours, he found a way to communicate with her. Almost gone, he called for her one last time as she promised him they would meet on the other side.
My father’s way was plain and simple, and he had a sadness about not having all he wanted to provide for mom and us kids. My brother and I often talk about how we are sure that he would have been a poet, a freedom fighter, and a revolutionary if he had stayed in Yugoslavia. He might have even been a comedian. Instead, he worked in a factory that made steel parts and brought home little steel toys that he made … it sounds like a grey British movie, but it’s really true. I still have some of them left at home.
Towards me, he was gentle, caring, protective, and always respectful. He would always listen carefully to what I had to say, and make sure that he encouraged me in the ways he understood a child should be. I often hear, with a guilty ear, how I was the one who had it “the best” out of my siblings, and I have to agree that the connection between my father and me was something that only another youngest daughter and a father can relate to. I was the little skinny daughter, he was an old wise clown, and we had an understanding about what life was about in our own Aquarian, dreamy way.
I was always protective of him, though I don’t know the reason why. Maybe I was the one who saw his gentle soul underneath all that he had been through. He let me in. I would cry when he hurt himself, and argue when anyone did him wrong. I have never met a man of his caliber, pride, patience, and strength. I was his protector, and he was mine.
I miss my father every day, and as I’m writing this, to share with you, I am realizing that I am only just now ready to celebrate him in the way he deserves. Not with tears but with beautiful memories and stories about what a great man he was, and what an amazing life he lived. His legacy lives on in us children. His joy for life and love has somehow transferred to the little girl who loves to get up every morning just to feel the first rays of sunlight tickle the very distinguished and original Djelevic nose, just like he did.
Thank you for being my Dad, and thank you guys for listening.