The beloved cuckoo clock, mounted on the wall by the fridge, lets out an abbreviated chirp at half past the hour. I take a second to appreciate the soft and playful sound before I return to the TV and watch as the German hockey team tries to fend off the Russians in the Olympic final. The Germans lose in overtime, but they play some of the best hockey I’ve ever seen. Both teams leave it all on the ice, carrying the puck with such skill, skating with such speed and power. They’re tough as steel, b ut little do they know the toughest of men is sitting next to me, equally as enthralled with the game as I am. We hold tight to our seats and stare wide-eyed at the round TV on top of the fridge in his house, exchanging the occasional smile, neither of us knowing his mischievous grin will be his wave goodbye to me.
A few weeks later, Jozef Brunovsky, a vital member of my Slovak family, passed away, less than a year after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. Even though the funeral and memorial service have passed, it still doesn’t seem real that the man my family and I have known for 23 years is gone. I’m not sure death ever does feel real; even though there is such a difference between life and death, the transition between the two always seems so lightning-quick.
We met the Brunovsky family in 1995 when I was 1 year old, just after we moved to Bratislava due to my mom’s career as a diplomat. Our house stood directly across from theirs on one of the many steep hills characteristic of Koliba, a borough of Bratislava.
My toddler memory is always failing me, but I remember some of those first years with our compassionate neighbors who make me feel warm and loved every time I’m around them. I remember sledding with Jozef and Eva’s two sons, Stefan and JoJo, in the winter and playing with wooden blocks at the Slovak kindergarten Eva worked in.
And yes, I remember that mischievous grin — the youthful expression every Brunovsky wears so well.
We moved to Singapore three years later and kept in touch with our favorite neighbors. My parents were always talking about them — how fun and energetic they were, how often they seemed to come to our rescue when the car got stuck on the iced-over hills in the winter, or the time Jozef grew my brother and me a pumpkin for Halloween, a holiday Slovaks do not celebrate in the same way.
And then, with the funny way life seems to work, I moved back to Bratislava years later and started spending almost every Sunday with my old neighbors again, who still live in the same house, on the same street, in the same neighborhood.
It was such a precious gift to meet them again as an adult — with a better memory and a more complete understanding of how people without second Slovak families are truly missing out. They made adjusting to a completely different life in a foreign country so easy and natural, showering me with schnitzel and encouragement. Because of them, Slovakia simply feels like an extension of my home in the U.S.
Just before I returned to Bratislava, Jozef, in his late 50s, had been diagnosed but he was still the same compassionate, strong and funny man he’s always been, despite the pain and brutality of cancer. And all the last moments I spent with him seemed to happen just beside that curious little cuckoo clock.
I still spend most Sundays with the Brunovsky family and I think, for a lightning-quick moment, that Jozef will be there. And of course, he is. I see him in his two fantastic sons, now 35 and 24, and his superhero of a wife, Eva, who treats me like her own daughter, sending me home with mounds of Slovak cake and Czech chocolate. I still hear him say a quick and exuberant hello every time the cuckoo clock marks the hour. And I can still see him smile, because a mischievous grin like his lives on.