On June 24th around 11pm the texts started coming in that my father-in-law, Tim Haak, was being rushed to the hospital. Something about his heart. Paramedics. CPR. Trying to get information. Vibrations from our phones bringing more half-answered questions as we struggled to fully wake up.
Was this like the “episode” he’d had a few months ago? Where his heart seemed to stop, but that was just a medication side-effect, right? Is this that again? Maybe? Is he okay? Maybe? We couldn’t get details fast enough. We packed and gathered up our toddler, Scout, as soon as possible and hit the road. A white knuckle drive. Chewing anxiously through the miles on the highway while we waited for information and fought sleep.
At 11:38pm the text came that he had died. We pulled over to weep. Scout silent in the backseat, wondering why it was dark out and why mom and dad were sad.
It was far too quick. Why couldn’t this have been a close call? How could he be dead? What if we had gone to visit this weekend? Would that have kept him alive through this somehow?
We pulled ourselves together and drove through the night to say our goodbyes.
It is years earlier, well before Scout, and we’re driving across the state for Christmas. My wife and I up front and our kittens meowing in a carrier in the back. We’d just adopted the cats and weren’t about to leave them by themselves at Christmastime.
Halfway through our journey our car started to overheat. So we did what we did in times like this and called Tim. He talked us through it, guided us to a gas station and then drove to meet us to assess the damage, help us get the car sorted out, and then take us back. This made me feel guilty, but this was what Tim did. I felt useless. I had no idea what to do with a broken car, a wife, and kittens in a gas station at night. He knew what to do though. He always seemed to know the next best step.
It wouldn’t be the last time Tim bailed us out by phone or in-person. He wouldn’t complain about driving three hours to visit us only to spend most of the time helping install a dishwasher. He and his wife would criss-cross Michigan seemingly endlessly helping their kids with all manner of house, car, and life problems.
He showed his love for his family through service. And, wow, did he love his family.
What they don’t tell you about parenting is how much joy you get seeing your family react to your kids. Especially your parents. You see a side of them they reserve for their grandkids.
Our daughter loved her Papa dearly. They’d pull faces at one another and pretend to eat each other’s food and feign alarm at the prospect. “No, that’s my food!” They’d laugh, she’d beam at him with a smile she reserved just for him. A full-bodied smile so full of joy and laughter.
I wonder if she’ll remember him. We’ve told her that he’s dead and let her say goodbye to him. But that reality doesn’t mean much to her right now. She celebrated her third birthday a week after he died. Too young for us to know for certain she’ll remember him, but we still hope she will. Regardless, we’ll certainly tell her about him. We’ll tell her how when he came to visit she’d laugh and laugh just at the sight of him, knowing that her Papa was here and that he loved her.
Tim’s approach to a problem could be called pragmatic optimisim. Try it, and if you fail, you’ve learned something. You can try again, or resort to plan B or C. He taught me fearlessness in the face of a certain amount of risk when working with your hands. That there was satisfaction–and savings–to be had when you could sit comfortably in that risk.
He loved the edges of problems. More than once there’d be a solution, but would keep digging to find a better one. It could be frustrating, and I admit I often wanted to rush him through the process. Just get the thing done to move on to the next item on the list. He’d sit in the problem longer though stewing through possibilities until satisfied.
You or I might say that having it fixed and fixed by your own hands is its own reward. Tim would want to do it himself and also save money. I remember a conversation with him in Home Depot about how long of a hose we needed for the dishwasher. My argument was that the 6 foot long was only a few dollars more and having a few extra feet might be nice for maneuvering the dishwasher and I already had it in the basket so we could just go. His argument was that the 4 foot one was probably long enough and also cheaper and that we should have driven to Menards because Home Depot’s prices were too high.
I’m not sure what was decided. It doesn’t matter. The grumbling and jokes were part of working with Tim. All I do know that the dishwasher works and hasn’t leaked once.
The first few times “we” fixed a car he wouldn’t really let me touch anything. I was to observe and keep track of the tools. Over time I’d ask to do something after he’d identified the problem. The first time I asked to loosen a bolt rather than just watch him he looked at me like I might screw it up. “You sure?” he’d ask. I was. Add up enough of these small victories over time he began to trust that I could be helpful.
The last few projects we did together. Whenever we’d finish he was fond of saying something like “and now you know why they want 1000 dollars to do that!” and he’d laugh because of course we wouldn’t pay that. We knew how to do it now! Whenever I did end up needing to take the car into the mechanic or hire a professional I’d be careful not to bring it up with him in too great of detail. Maybe make reference to the fact that it was done, but never how much it costs. If it came up I’d sidestep it or lead with the excuses. Yes, I know we could have replaced the starter, but it was below freezing and the car wouldn’t start and I panicked and and and…
It is the return trip from the visitation and the funeral. We’re emotionally spent. We stop for some such thing and I notice that the small rattle the car had been making has gotten much worse. We get back on the road and when we finally get home and pull into our driveway the rattle has been replaced with a muscle car roar. Where the center pipe was supposed to be bolted to the catalytic converter they’d instead welded it and that weld had failed. The exhaust was separated into two pieces venting exhaust directly below where my wife was sitting.
My heart sank.
Grief feels like a random dice roll sometimes. You’re never sure what it’s going to feel like. This time? Anger. Angry that he left us so quickly. Depression too, because who was I supposed to call now?
His kids, of course. They’d had the good fortune of knowing him their whole lives. So we texted my brothers-in-law, and they texted back with some ideas, and a plan began to form. This was doable. This was something Tim had prepared me for.
I wanted to quit many times during this repair. Just take it to a mechanic and have them deal with it. I resented that I knew Tim would tell me that this was an easy one in the grand scheme of things. Plenty of room to work under there, just do this and that and you’re basically done. My counterpoint was that I didn’t want to. It’s not convenient to make time to fix a car. In the end, I finally decided to stick with it out of respect for him. Giving up at the first sign of discomfort wasn’t his style.
The heat index was approaching 100 degrees the first day I went under the car to try to remove the old center pipe. The spring bolts would just not budge no matter how much oil, heat and/or pressure was applied and I wasn’t sure what to do next. Pete, my brother-in-law, explained that I needed some sort of power tool. So we went to the store with my daughter in tow, who has and will spend a lot of time in hardware stores, and bought an angle grinder and a sawzall. If the angle grinder didn’t work, the sawzall would. These bolts had no chance.
I wouldn’t have time to do this until the following day, which meant I was up half the night thinking it through. First this, then that, then this. Follow the steps, have a contingency plan. Be bold. You’re scared, but don’t be, it’s just metal, it’s knowable. Do this with the confidence of your late father-in-law.
The next day felt liminal. The temperature had dropped to something comfortable rather than scorching and I had an entire afternoon marked off for the repair.
The angle grinder made short work of the seized bolts connecting the muffler. The old center pipe was free. Then I ground down the failed welding job on the catalytic convertor and smoothed it out, taking care to do it right.
This was working, it was going to work. Somehow this was going to work.
I starting thinking of the time Tim and I spent hours on our backs beneath a different car in a different summer day looking at a different problem. Between us was a stack of pipes and clamps of different sizes. We were trying various configurations wondering which combination would attach the new-to-us muffler to the car. After a while I picked the muffler up just to see how close the pipes were and realized that it slipped right on with no issues. No convertor needed. We’d made a mountain out of a molehill.
We laughed then and that was the first time he looked at me like maybe I wasn’t a lost cause.
Back in the present I smiled, manage to put the pipe in upside down, laughed at my mistake, pulled the part back off the hangers, flipped it around while hitting myself in the face with it and laughed at that too. Tim never took himself that seriously either, not getting too full of yourself is part of car repairs. Then I put it right side up on the hangers, tightened up the bolts on the catalytic converter side, and then on the muffler side and it was done.
There’s a calm moment in every physical job where the end takes shape. I’ve come to appreciate that moment. Tim certainly did. He would get almost melancholy about it. The end approaching. The effort exerted and the fun part of solving the problem behind us. Just testing and cleanup left.
I held my breath, turned on the car, and…it worked. It sounded normal, like the car was supposed to. I turned the car off and went back underneath to check on the connections one last time and marveled at it. Laying there looking at a shiny new pipe with tools strewn all around me I felt so much pride. I wanted to text Tim that it had worked, that the car was fixed, that I’d done it.
That’s when I started crying.
I miss Tim a lot.
He taught me that despite my misgivings, I could fix a car. And if I can do that, I can probably do some other things on my list that scare me. We all had our lists for Tim. Those todos that we were waiting for him to come help us take care of. Now that he’s gone we’ll need to help each other to handle them, but I think we’ll manage because he gave us an example of how to do it.
Eulogizing a man like Tim is difficult. Making a statement, a grand or a small one, that summarizes a life is impossible. A good eulogy inspires you to mimic the best of what you admired in a person, a starting point for the rest of your life without them.
So I close with this: to Tim Haak, a fantastic father-in-law. A man devoted to his family and the pursuit of happiness. He strove to be the best husband, father, and Papa he could be. He gave us much while asking for very little in turn.
Remember him as he was: with a joke on his lips and a helping hand extended.