This has been among the hardest weeks of my life. I’m facing my first injury of the season, but that’s not my source of stress. A week ago I learned that Bob Havrilak passed away. He had been fighting an aggressive form of myeloma and died from complications. Bob and I became very close friends after his son, Adam, passed away in a motorcycle accident two years ago. I wrote the following as a tribute to Bob and what he meant to me. I’m not sure I could have done all of this without him.
There’s never an easy way to describe our most meaningful relationships. Bob Havrilak was introduced to me as the father of a great friend. Bob was never a quiet acquaintance, however, and he came into my life the way he did with every endeavor in his life, with a stampede of presence. I remember the first day I spent with Bob. He and Adam were in Waikaloa for the Lavaman Triathlon. Adam came up to me beaming, Bob in tow, and introduced me to his father in a voice that boomed with pride. Later my family would join the two of them for dinner and I quickly learned where Adam had inherited so much of his character. The two of them shared a lustrous laugh that echoed through the resort. In just two nights the hotel staff had come to know both men by name, and their jovial demeanor seemed to spread to everyone lucky enough to be nearby.
Over the next two years Bob was persistent in his communications with me. The three of us spent Christmas together that year, during a time when I was struggling to find my own path. Bob and Adam helped push me to believe in myself and I left Hawaii feeling invigorated. That year Adam returned to China and I began racing professionally. I planned a return trip to Hawaii for the following year and planned to stay with Bob, hoping that Adam would be able to join us. But that previous Christmas was the last time the three of us would be together. When I returned to Hawaii Kai it was just a few weeks after Adam’s accident. I was uncertain where I fit into the post-Adam life of Bob, and I remember worrying to myself about being a burden on him – a sentiment that shows how little I knew about Bob at the time. I nearly cancelled my trip, but something pushed me to be there. Bob picked me up from the airport, and with tears in our eyes he swung a pair of heavy arms around me and hugged me for what seemed like an hour, but was neither too long nor too short. Then, in just a few words, as if he had read my mind, he squandered my worries, “Ben, up until now we’ve had a relationship that was centered around Adam. In the next eight weeks we’re going to get to know each other differently. We’re going to develop our own relationship without Adam. We both miss him, and we can mourn together, but you and I can’t make that the center of our relationship with each other.” And over the next eight weeks that’s exactly what happened.
Bob took an immediate interest in my training. He would ride his bike next to me while I ran; he would drive me to the track and take videos of me running. He would tell people, “Ben runs his ten ‘K’ while I run my tenth ‘K’”. Bob brought me to a Honolulu Rotary Club meeting for an inspirational speech and bragged to the room about accomplishments I still had not achieved. Bob was quick to show his pride in the people around him, yet forever modest about his own qualities.
Bob treated me like family even though he was going through one of the hardest periods of his life. Many times I would return home and find Bob curled up on the couch, a bear of a man with the body language of a helpless child, torn apart with grief for Adam. The pain I saw Bob dealing with was so powerful it can’t be put into words. I know with certainty now that such grief as losing your child can only be understood by going through it. It was clear that Bob’s participation in my life did not come easy, but when I asked if he needed time to himself he insisted that I was keeping him from drowning in his grief. And that’s the way he was. Even in the darkest time of his life, he coped by opening his heart.
Bob gave unconditionally to the people around him. He was selfless to a flaw – unwilling to ask for help but forceful in his giving. A couple years ago I incurred an injury that put me on crutches and kept me from racing for almost six months. I was depressed and feeling lost, but within days of hearing about it Bob showed up at my door in Seattle with a plan. We road tripped to Canada. He talked a local pilot into giving me a ride in a tiny airplane through the mountains of British Columbia; we hit up the Vancouver nightlife, and feasted on bowls of mussels at my favorite seafood restaurant. I was on crutches, but everywhere we went he introduced me as a World Champion. We took a ferry to Vancouver Island and drove down the coast to visit Scott Mihalchan – a partial quadriplegic triathlete who Adam had introduced us to in Hawaii. Bob’s intentions were blatant and effective. I couldn’t help but be lifted out of my depression, and as the ferry whisked us back toward Washington we found ourselves uninhibitedly laughing, feeling ready for whatever unexpected adventures lay ahead.
Bob showed me that one person’s love is infinite. His love for Emily, Barbara and Adam was overwhelming. He spoke of his daughters with a sparkle in his big blue eyes and a smile across his broad cheeks. He would stop everything for a phone call from his kids, and do whatever he could to help them. And even with all that love for his own children he always found more love for the people around him, as if his heart grew in size with every person he met. Bob embraced the idea of ‘Ohana’ and never hesitated to adopt another member with the same love he had for the rest of us.
After all the time we shared together I still cannot find a name for our relationship. I called him “Uncle Bob”, he called me “Benny.” At times he acted like a father, and at times like a friend. He was a teacher, a companion, a supporter and source of inspiration. If we all strive to be half as giving as Bob the world will be flooded with good deeds, no mouth will be unfed, and “stranger” will be a word without meaning. If Bob could live another day for every person he helped, he would be immortal because there was never a day in his life when he didn’t give his heart to someone. Bob is no longer with us, but we can embrace his life by making our love infinite, sharing unquestionably with those around us, and always remembering what a difference we can make in each other’s lives. I feel blessed to have shared part of life with Bob Havrilak. I will always have a clear memory of Bob’s smiling face, his hearty belly-laugh, and those extraordinary blue eyes that welcomed us all into his life.