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Josip Novakovich: Ruth’s Death, nonfiction (memoir)
By Josip Novakovich | Published  12/6/2006 | Culture And Arts , Croatian Life Stories | Unrated

Josip Novakovich

201 Old Hannah Furnace Road

Warriors Mark, PA 16877



nonfiction (memoir) 



Ruth's Death


It's hard for me to write about parents since I know more about children than about parents. That is because when I was a child, I was more interested in myself and my siblings than in my parents, and now that I am a parent, I find our children more interesting than us parents. I remember my parents saying I would understand what they said when I grew older. I still don't understand them. My father died when I was eleven and I was a bit estranged from my mother because Father and Mother made a simple game - I was his favorite, and my older brother Ivo was hers. (She was still alive, 87, when I wrote these lines, and now that she has died I am rewriting.) She had been ill now for five years. We expected her to die after her heart attack, stroke, diagnosis with diabetes, food poisoning, and herpes shingles which gave her chronic neuralgia. Jeanette, our two children, and I, went to Daruvar for her birthday party, May 27. Her middle name was May; she was born in the States, in Cuyahoga County, before the river went up in flames and before the world did too, in 1918, one month before the Sarajevo assassination.

          She was paler than usual, her hair, which had stayed half black until her 80th birthday, was now completely white, her green-hazel eyes seemed to have grown smaller although they had always been small, under high-arched eyebrows, and she looked startled, caught in a role she didn't like. She had seemed to be the strong one, taking care of the others who were sick, and this change surprised her.

          As we slurped chicken soup, my daughter, who was 3 years at the time, asked, Are you a ghost?

          Mother, who could understand some English, having been born in the States, and having spent her first three years of life there, wanted us to translate. (She could sing Mary had a little lamb before her final illness.)

          I said, I am not sure I should translate.

          Why not? she asked. She looked like a turtle, with all the creases and ancient caution, as though I could harm her.

          Well, she asks whether you are a ghost. It's quaint how a child sees things.

          My mother didn't seem to find it quaint. She didn't laugh, didn't comment. She gave me a look with her shrinking head, and I felt put in my place in this biology of life and death. Who the hell was I to tell her about life and death? Mothers took care of survival.

          I felt I needed to explain more, and I said, See, we told her that you were gravely ill and that we should rush to see you before you die.

          So, when will she become a spirit? asked my daughter. I am the first person in the world Eva saw, as my wife had a C-section, and I think that she still trusts me in the primary-imprinting kind of way.

          What did she ask now? Mom asked.

          I translated again. Eva had her own theology, that everybody dies, but first becomes a ghost, and gradually, when the ghost learns how to fly very well, it quits hanging around the body, dies for the second time, and goes into heavens, and when it has nothing to do with the body, it is a spirit, spirit in the sky.

          Your grandma is fully alive, I said to Eva. She's just pale; that doesn't mean she's a ghost.

          But I wanted to see a ghost. I've never seen one.

          We slurped our tomato soup in silence, and Eva kept glancing up at her grandmother and grandmother at Eva. Mother had wanted us to name Eva Ruth. None of her grandchildren and great grandchildren had got the name Ruth, and she wondered why. I said that names sound better when they end in a vowel, which you can enjoy in your vocal cords for a long while.

          I used to be Ruta for many years, she said, until you all got hold of my birth certificate and saw that I was named Ruth, so I started using my original name. You could have called someone Ruta in Croatian.

          Sure, but it sounds like the road. Who wants to be trampled on? I asked, and thought, Holy Cow, what a question. Wasn't she trampled on, like a Route? 


We visited Ruth several times, always expecting her to die shortly afterward. Once, after her collapse consisting of a heart attack and stroke, we came to Pakrac Hospital, where she lay in a ward. We drove in an old Volkswagen Bug borrowed from a friend. It was winter and the windows couldn't be completely closed and the heat didn't work. We were freezing during the two hour trip through side-roads and damaged villages. Many houses were burned down, but as they were made of stone and brick, they still stood. Some floors and roofs collapsed from the beams' burnout. Many houses had bullet holes in the mortar. We passed through two deserted villages on the way, with thin snow sporadically covering the ground. The hospital itself was mostly destroyed with howitzer and anti-aircraft bullet holes in the gray walls. My older brother Vlado used to work in this hospital as an ophthalmologist and now he worked independently but he still knew the cardiologist who had remained in the hospital. Vlado claimed that the first missile of the Yugoslav war landed in his bed at the hospital. The Yugoslav army surrounded Pakrac and started shelling the hospital under the pretext that there were Croatian policemen there. A missile went through the window and landed on the bed. As the bed was soft, and the bomb required a strong impact to go off, it didn't explode. My brother was supposed to be there that night and he would have been probably in bed that early in the morning. He had stayed home to pay attention to his sick wife, a woman whose family was obliterated by the Serbian chetniks in the second world war, in front of her eyes, and who, despite her initial good looks, remained a sorrowful face, whom everybody shunned.

          On the way to the hospital, on the former highway of Bratsva i jedinstva (Brotherhood and Unity) we saw bunnies. A large brown hawk sat on a walnut tree. In the yard hospital, crows hopped among chicken. We walked in and asked to see Ruth Novakovic. Kindly nurses led us there. Ruth was sharing a room with two other elderly women. She sat up when she saw us. How are you? I asked.

          How could I be? Svakako. Any which way. Bad and good.

          It's all right here in the hospital?

          Yes, we talk and talk. What else can we do?

          We know everything about your children, said a woman in the bed next to hers.

          And I know everything about her extended family. It's like a conference of biographers here, my mother said. All that remains after so many of us is stories.

          Good that you can remember so many lives, I said. I would make a terribly boring patient. I'd have to resort to telling jokes.

          That would be sad, Mom said. There's more to life than ridicule.


We wanted our son to play the cello for her.

He doesn't have to play for me, she said.

He will anyway, I replied. It was a small cello and he made a beautiful sight and sound, so little as he was with the little cello, with long blond hair, stringing out various etudes.

          How do you like his playing? I asked.

          I am not an expert. I don't understand any of it.

          You don't have to understand it - do you enjoy listening to him?

          I am too busy thinking about it all, all of you, so many people, to talk about pleasure now.

          I remembered now. It was hard to get a compliment out of my mother, and I was fishing for one, obviously. If it never worked for me, maybe it should work for my son. Not that I needed a compliment for me, but I wanted one for my son's well being and my mother's well being, a moment of satisfaction, an insight that life has been good after all because, look at it, the offspring is talented and beautiful. Maybe there was such a moment of satisfaction in her as she listened and breathed heavily. She simply didn't have the means of expressing that satisfaction verbally and the habits dominated the patterns of speech especially now - what is the right thing to say as someone seems to be deathly ill? We all floundered, customs didn't seem to provide the necessary ammunition. Ammunition to kill the awkwardness?

          But her thinking also couldn't be changed. How much does the cello cost? she asked. How can you pay for all of that? Isn't that reckless of you?

          Yes, it is reckless, I said. And it would also be reckless not to spend anything on the cello and children's music education. Remember how our father tried to turn us into musicians, how he bought a piano, and then an organ, and a violin, and none of us would play, but here, don't you think he would be delighted if he saw his grandson, if he could see him.

          Yes, he would be, she said. He was wild about music. But he was not a realist.

          But don't you love music?

          Oh, don't worry about what I think.

          Well, we don't need to quarrel as there's nothing to quarrel about, I said. Some things are good, and you see we are proud of him.

          Poor kid. Do you feed him enough?!

          Yes, we do our best.

          He should have a little more color in his cheeks.

          He'll get it in the summer.

          But where will you be in the summer? I hope not in Russia again.

          In Russia, after all, I said. They have more sunshine then than anybody in the summer - white nights.

          Oh yes, then you won't be able to sleep.

          You've never been much of a sleeper yourself, I said.

          No, I had to worry about everything all the time, and now it doesn't matter. If I had known it would all end up like this, I would have slept more. But even that doesn't matter now. It really is all the same.

          That's a relaxing thought, isn't it?

          I wish I could just fall asleep and never wake up. Being dead would be better than this.

          How can you say that?

          You have no idea how much pain I have.

          From the heart attack?

          No, that hasn't bothered me that much. But these nerves on my left side and my back, they feel like I am on fire. That never goes away, no pain killers, nothing helps, and it just grinds me down.

          That does sound terrible.

          I don't know how that happened. And my brother has the same neurological illness except it attacked his eyes, and he is blind, and he says he feels like scratching his eyes out of his sockets, his eyes itch and hurt so much.

          I know, I visited him. At least he follows all the news and discusses politics, more than when he was healthy.

          Yes, when he was healthy, he was drunk. I think he was drunk for 30 years, so you couldn't hear any smart idea from him then, and he slurred so badly I couldn't understand what he was saying and when I did, it wasn't worth the effort. I am surprised that he can make so much sense now, that his brain is so good. He sounds like a president.

          That's not much of a compliment. Well, for someone who's had a heart attack and a stroke, you seem to be totally alert.

          The pain keeps me alert.

          Maybe pain is good for you after all.

          It can't be.


She had other crises, and we rushed to see her and gathered around her, and no longer talked about ghosts. The last time I visited her - I visited six times in three weeks but could never stay for longer than an hour as she would get exhausted--she expressed her love of animals. She always enjoyed cats but didn't ask for one. Vlado, who lived downstairs from her, and took care of her, has a large dog, but no cats and his wife hated cats.

          I heard there's a family of hedgehogs living in the bushes downstairs, she said. One of them caught a birdie which fell out of a nest, a little swallow, and carried it to their lair. It was all naked and hairless, and when Vlado prodded the hedgehog with a stick, it still wouldn't let go of the birdie but ran with it to the other hedgehogs.

          That's kind of nice, I said, although it sounded terrible as well.

          Maybe it fed its young ones like that.

          It's possible. Have you seen them? Would you like to see them?

          I probably would but I don't need to. Life like that is interesting. I've seen a lot of life. You know, we lived in the village, where my misguided Dad ran a farm, if you could all it that. What a failure he was! But he loved animals, you know. He had many good moments with cows, dogs, cats, goats, geese, donkeys, doves. He loved doves, and his grandson, Pepik, inherited that disease. He had a collection of carriers. Poor boy!

True, my cousin was devoted to letter-carrier pigeons. And this kind of love of animal life was part of our extended family. Just knowing that there was such life around her seemed to comfort her. There she was similar to my daughter who loves animals so much that we have several anecdotes. One: Eva picked up a snake. The snake bit her. Eva cried. Why are you crying? Jeanette asked. Because my snake left me. She slipped into the bushes and I can't find her anymore.

          (I wrote this section while Ruth was still alive, and that's why it's in the present tense, in parts.) Mom sits in a house where I grew up, and stays in the room where my father died. It used to be Mose Pijade 43, named after a communist, Tito's adviser in World War II. Now it's named Jelacica 43, after a Croatian Governor, who helped suppress the Hungarian National Revolt in 1948. It's a big house, which took many years to build, made of stone and brick, very solid, although in my dreams the house shows up falling apart, with the walls swelling, moving, warping.

          When I visit her I can't stay very long. She keeps her windows closed, other than one, because she is scared of draughts. There's a musty smell there. Since she can't walk to the bathroom, she keeps her large potty right there, and my brother empties it every evening when he comes to make sure she has taken all her pills. That's the smell of old age then. In the States, she would be in an old people's home, and perhaps that would be better, but here my brother takes care of her, and he considers that superior to the alienation of old age. She doesn't need much company and she is among her own, Vlado says, and talks: I know Czechs in this area, who, as soon as their parents are over 70, no matter what shape they are in, ship them into nursing homes or put them in far away villages, to die alone, like sick cats. That is shameful. I had a patient here, an old Czech, and her son kept asking how long she had to live yet, and was disappointed, clearly, when I said, she could live ten years. In all that, my brother may have forgotten that we are quarter-part Czechs ourselves. He is not eager to see Czechs in a good light, apparently. At the same time, it's pretty heroic of him to be taking care of her for years now. His vacations are limited by whether he can find care for her - and now that he is at the coast, he has a sturdy woman in her mid-forties helping out. She is a house-keeper for the old castle in the middle of the park, which used to be a school, where I finished my elementary education; and now it is partly a museum and to a large extend, a wine-cellar. Well, it always had fine cellars from which the smell of old oak, soaked in wine, and rotting slowly, for decades, spread and wafted up the corridors into our classroom. No wonder so many of my classmates became alcoholics, and at least two of them, out of 30, have already died from alcoholism. That woman now cleans the museum and castle, living with her two sons, without a husband. I met her, and she talked eagerly and loudly, but was clearly good natured, an old style peasant. She comes in three times a day now and delivers the food. My mother eats minimally, half a potato a day, a slice of bread with honey, a glass of milk, a slice of orange. She doesn't move much but keeps listening and looking. She is a bit deaf, so her TV set is loud. She used to be a big reader. In a way she represents the history of culture here and abroad - the defeat of the written word. When I borrowed books from the library, such as the Village of Stepanichkovo by Dostoyevski, she would rebuke me for reading too much and then even before I'd get to read the book, she would finish it, and would comment on what a waste of time it was.

          A cousin of mine, who didn't like to read much, had respect for Ruth, and she asked her for advice, What novel should I read? I am on vacation.

          Tess by Hardy is excellent, Ruth said, and the cousin read the book and loved it.

          When did you read the novel? I asked her.

          Years ago, when my Mother and I lived in Zagreb. Mother had divorced Papa, and she took me along to Zagreb, while my little brothers stayed with the stepmother, who, by the way, was an angel. She never had a child of her own, and she had to put up to Papa's pining after his former wife, Mary. Once a week or so he'd go into a diatribe about how much he missed her, and what a mistake it was that he let her go, and Strina never objected to it, but loved him till death.

          So where did you live in Zagreb?

          Where? What could we do? Mary worked as a nanny for a German Jewish family, who owned a textile factory near the center. They liked the idea of raising their children bilingual, and they paid Mary pretty well because of English. I helped in the house with the dishes, cleaning, and babysitting. They had a fine library and I read in spare time, and Tess was my favorite.

          How long did you stay there?

          Not long, just a couple of years. When I got married, I went back to the village, but Mary stayed. When the king of Yugoslavia signed the pact with Hitler, the family talked about leaving, to America, and they offered to take even me along. Your Dad had already been in the army for two years but he wasn't coming home.

          The Germans overran Yugoslavia, and the gendarmes came to the house and took the family away to the train station, for Poland. They kicked us out into the streets.

          What happened to the family?

          You know what happened. You know what the beasts did with the Jews. Tears rolled down her cheeks, but she composed herself and went on.

          Mary volunteered to join the partisans. She hated the Germans and their Ustasha helpers who kicked her new family out of the house. She wanted a gun, but there weren't enough guns then, and so she worked as a nurse, till the end of the war, and when Tito came to Zagreb near the end, she was his nurse.

          Wow, she had quite a lot of adventures, then, I said. Strange, she never spoke to me about any of it in Cleveland, but read hundreds of war novels. She could never have enough of war in her head. And you never talked about it. How come I never heard about this period of your life?

          Why would you? You never asked, and you never listened.

          Is that where you learned to speak German? Or was it Yiddish? You always seemed to have a strange vocabulary, with words from all over.

          Earlier on I stayed with the Brkic family family, and they spoke mostly German at home. Anyway, I think those years in Zagreb were the happiest years in Mom's life, strangely enough.

          She enjoyed hanging out with guys, that's true, I said. When I visited her in Cleveland (where she returned several years after the war), and when she was old and frail, she would limp to the fire-station a block away, and hang out with the fire-fighters. She talked to them, and they listened, and laughed, and said to me, Your Grandma is a hoot! But she wasn't a hoot with me, she told me nothing. But then you don't tell me everything either. How come I never knew you lived in Zagreb? You could tell me more about the war, I am sure.

          I could, I am sure, but I am too tired now.


Anyway, a year later, after seeing my mother, I bought a ticket to see her after my classes at Penn State ended. She seemed to be able to last, but I heard that she couldn't get out of bed and that bode no good. I was sitting in the lobby of Juilliard, where my son was spending the day taking classes and participating in the chamber and orchestral activities, and since I had seven hours free, I was making phone-calls to see whether any of my friends were free to get together for coffee or a stroll in the park. In the middle of my leaving a message, there was beeping, someone trying to call me, and it was my brother from Minneapolis. Vlado called, he said. Mother died this morning.

          It was not unexpected but it was not expected either. Still a shock.

          Any details? How did she die? What about the funeral? (That felt now like chatter. Nothing changes Mom's death.)

          Apparently, she was a bit better than a few days ago, and even had a meal, kasha or something, and later when Vlado came back to give her medication, she was dead. He thinks she simply fell asleep.

          She didn't want to live any more, I said.

          Yes, for a long time she claimed it, but she must have really grown tired of being in bed and not being able to sit up.

          Will you go to the funeral?

          I don't know - we'll look for tickets, but last minute, it's hard, and they aren't going to wait for us. They will bury her in three days. In this country, it can be delayed, but there, they don't do that, they don't refrigerate the dead.

          No yet, anyway.

          Oh, shit, what to do? To pull out my son from the classes, and fly? But I hate funerals, they are either morbid and depressing, or duplicitously uplifting. I had just been to a memorial which was presented as the happiest occasion on earth, with lots of smiles and laughs, and I didn't believe the mood. It was a prozac memorial. Well, maybe it wasn't, maybe the spirit was so uplifting.

          I walked around the block of gray concrete, NY Public Library, Lincoln Center, Tower Records . . . nothing Ruth would identify with as home. To begin with, this was the center of New York. She was Cleveland steel trash, fodder for the industry and economy here. I walked and I was dizzy. My step was not steady, this all was bad; it would be a cliché to have a crisis of nerves now. When someone dies, how original can you be? Ignore the death? Indulge it by losing it? What the hell can I do? I know, this is all normal. We will all die and it will be all normal. This is the illness for which there is no help. Religion? Should I pray now? I spent half of my youth in religious frenzy, but where is it now? No, I am not going to pray. It would be an opportunist moment. Maybe I will pray in a month. Maybe I will gather enough faith for that. Now I am just plainly ill.

          I went out and re-parked the car from the metered slot into a yard, and I sat there, and didn't feel like getting out of it. I called up my wife, to see whether she could dig up some cheap last minute fares to Croatia. She didn't think I should go - maybe it would be better to have a memorial service some time in December and we could all gather then?

          The cheapest ticket at first was $2400 for flying out the same day. Yes, one shouldn't think of money in a moment like this, but in addition to all, this would turn out to be a financial blow. In many American and other national good families people grieve and then inherit a chunk of property. A friend of mine from California bought a huge house in England; his mother had died, and now he's happy, and just got married in his new spacious home. In a way, he made out. My brother would inherit the section of home where Mother lived but he had earned it tenfold - nothing could repay him the ten years of constant care in his best years. I wasn't thinking of all that at that moment in New York as I walked around dizzy, but I did want to get a cheap airfare to Croatia, not to end up not only grieving but also bankrupt.

          We had recently gone to Jeanette's father's burial, and then we all drove, the whole family, the four of us, to Nebraska. It was winter, a cold day. Her father had frozen to death. He insisted on taking a drive on the coldest day in December, with his wife, to look at the pastures where he used to have a herd of cattle. The cattle grazed for forty years with his help; he left them in the fields mineral supplements, large blocks of salted stuff which the cows loved to lick, and I helped him with that. Somehow, he never had a four-wheel drive, and he managed to navigate through mud and snow in the hills with his Toyota pick-ups. Now he got stuck in a snowdrift, and his wife went to town to get someone to pull them out, and by the time she got back, Ken was dead.

          I had received the news; Jeanette's Mother had called, Ken passed away. How and when I asked and she told me the story. I called Jeanette at her work, and said, your father died. (I never liked the expression passed away, or the recently fashionable, passed. . . Death can't be softened.) She broke into tears and rushed home. I cancelled my flight to Colorado College and we drove. When we got to Creighton, Jeanette wanted to drive by the morgue, and there in the window, she saw the sign, Kenneth Baldwin. Up till then we had kept up a reasonably cheerful conversation, even occasionally praising the fullness of life Ken had had, doing all he had dreamed of, even visiting Croatia and Greece, and Alaska and Mexico. As a self-made cowboy, he tended Westward more than Eastward, and I was seen by the cowboy family, when we lived in Nebraska, as an alien element, and I never


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