Ironing Mirko’s Sweatpants

Uncovering the depths of a family’s care

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“When you’re speaking in the truest, most intimate voice about your life, you are speaking with the universal voice.”

—Cheryl Strayed

“It’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.”

—Krista Trippett

Mirko was born in 1938 in Croatia on the Adriatic Sea. At 16, he went to boat-building trade school. Then, in 1958, at 20, he escaped, with his brother and father, on a small, wooden boat across the Adriatic. For five days, they battled storms and thought that they would die in the sea. They ended up in a refugee camp in Ancona, Italy. A year later, they met their sister and mother in France, and lived and worked there four years. The clan stuck together wherever they went—New York, St. Louis, California. Eventually, they bought a shipyard on Lake Union in Seattle, right by Gasworks Park.

I met the family at the shipyard, the whole clan, and introduced myself as their officiant this weekend for Mirko’s funeral. The family told stories about Mirko’s life, about their lives—because they were bound up together, en masse. It’s a story of turbulence. Water was the proper metaphor—they were born of the sea, they escaped by the sea, they make their living by the sea, and they will die by the sea. When they came to the part about St. Louis they laughed, “We were stuck, landlocked. We had to escape there, too. We don’t feel at home unless we are close enough to skip a rock on water.”

The story of the clan was all woven together, but I had a hard time getting to anything signature about Mirko. I finally asked, What were his dreams? What was his signature achievement? Mira, his sister, speaks first. “He had schizophrenia. He heard ugly voices. He is in a better place now.” I asked what Mirko liked. The niece offered, “He loved American country music, Johnny Cash! And Elvis was his idol. He dressed like Elvis and thought he looked like Elvis.” I asked for proof. And they brought out pictures of Mirko looking every bit as handsome as Elvis.

Mirko loved Americana. He loved big, classic American cars. He loved old rock and roll. Country. He took to what America had to offer him. His family took care of him, indulged his fancies. He was fastidious about his clothes and hair. But he liked to wear sweatpants and suit coats, which felt eastern European. He had numerous sweatpants. Mira did his laundry and even ironed his sweatpants.

The other big, essential thing about Mirko, that even transcended his mental illness, was his family. He didn’t have any friends except his old-school family. His family enveloped him, took care of him, stood by him all the way through to the end. His family gave him the mercy he needed. The day he died, John, his brother, came to the nursing home where Mirko lived. He found Mirko dead but warm. He was, as always, wearing his crucifix. Mirko had been waiting for John to take him out to lunch and get him a haircut.

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