I’ve been married to my beautiful wife, Jennifer, for nearly twelve years now. Looking back, there are a number of moments in our relationship that terrified me: working up the courage to talk to her, actually asking her on a date, holding her hand for the first time, proposing marriage… and the day I had to explain to her how I spent WAY too much money on playoff tickets in 2006. But these were nothing compared to the fear I felt when, for the first time, I met her dad.
I think every young man has some trepidation about meeting their girlfriends’ father. Many of these relish the chance to make the young men interested in their daughters quake in their boots – I have a teacher friend with a sword collection mounted in his living room for precisely this purpose. I was more than a little afraid to meet Bob Hagel for the first time. My future brother-in-law, Doug, was aware of my trepidation, and he made sure that Bob was aware and prepared for this first meeting.
In June of 2004, Jen’s brother was ordained a priest for the diocese of Calgary. Since we’d been dating a few months, this seemed to be the easiest time for her to bring me back to meet her family. Following the ordination, we made our way back to the farm where she grew up. While there, Bob offered me a tour of the farm, which culminated in the barn. There, he demonstrated (on my arms) how calf pullers work – wrapping the chains around my arms and locking them in place. With me trapped, he pulled a .22 off a shelf in the barn, and with what I remember to be a rather serious look on his face, spoke five words which seemed to confirm all my fears:
“So, let’s talk about Jennifer.”
I began to wonder how long it had been since my last confession… mercifully, the serious look didn’t last more than a few seconds before Bob began to laugh, and I realized I’d been had. I don’t imagine that most relationships that begin with one party pulling a firearm on the other part tend to blossom into something good or healthy, but I can say without a doubt that I am a better man for the thirteen years I’ve known Bob.
While for me, living in third place is still a project, for Bob, it was a masterpiece. His Christian faith and his care for others are among the most genuine I’ve ever encountered.
Bob and his wife, Martha, raised three children who inherited a deep love for their faith, and who’ve dedicated their adult lives in some way to sharing that faith. Sure, Jen’s brother is a priest, but she and her sister also both married youth ministers. This comes from the way in which Jen’s family made the Rosary and Sunday Mass non-negotiable pillars in the daily/weekly life of their family. In retirement, this commitment increased. It wouldn’t be odd for Bob to serve in different ministries at each of the Sunday liturgies for his parish in Medicine Hat (music ministry, Eucharistic minister, adult server, usher, and even sound technician!) Nights where he couldn’t sleep weren’t filled with snacks or surfing the internet – Bob would give this time to prayer.
Bob’s care for others seemed to come naturally and knew no limit. From helping a scared young man ask his blessing on his intended marriage proposal (I actually almost blacked out while I did it), to filling my gas tank every time we would visit, to helping a blind relative get out and about on a regular basis – Bob embraced the opportunities to serve whomever, every time the circumstances arose. A few years ago, some friends of ours needed a place to stay in southern Alberta for some specific medical treatment, so (of course) he and Martha opened up their home to this little family – and he played with their son with the same care and attention as he did his own grandchildren. And boy, did Bob care for his grandchildren. When each one was born, he’d give up his wife for weeks as she’d travel up north to be with us to cook and clean and cuddle the baby. When he’d get the chance to come up and meet them, it always amazed me how delicately he’d hold each one, and how he’d relate to each of them a little differently. Whether it was playing mini-stick hockey or Mario Kart, turning on the treadmill at a low speed to they could ride it, fall off, and get back on again, or singing/dancing with a one-year-old, he made a point of getting into their respective worlds… and sharing his own with them. From football to crokinole to John Deere tractors, some of his loves certainly rubbed off on my kids.
You’ll notice that I’ve bounced back and forth between present and past tense while writing this post. The sad fact is that my wife’s beloved father, my father-in-law, (and “Grandpa” to my kids) passed away this past Sunday. While there are many more stories to be told and tears to be shed by people who knew him far better than I did, I am most grateful for his life which has left a permanent imprint on mine. I am most grateful that we got well beyond my fears about our first meeting, as I’ll certainly treasure the memories we made in the years that follow.
Rest in peace, Bob, and thank you for sharing with so many of us such a truly beautiful life.