Every Day Is A Gift: JJ Hanson Says Goodbye to Family and Friends
A moment, finally, to catch our breath after a busy Christmas week. To realize the year is dying. To hold on to this moment, before everything changes.
A good moment to realize, “I am.”
Tonight we think, “I am,” and pray hard for a young couple we know, Kristen and JJ Hanson.
JJ, we’re told, is dying. I’ve known this young couple since they were teenagers, watched them grow up, fall in love and move away. I was surprised when they moved back home a few years ago, and saddened to learn that JJ Hanson, now 36, was battling stage four glioblastoma multiforme, the most deadly form of brain cancer. He was in remission then, and, typical of JJ, set up a foundation, The Can’t Hurt Steel Community Foundation, to help other families struggling with healthcare costs and other needs. Then, he became the public face of a group opposing assisted suicide. As president of the Patients Rights Action Fund, he and his wife, Kristen crossed the country. We got used to seeing him, speaking before Congress, being quoted in the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal, appearing on Fox and Friends. “That’s JJ,” we told each other, “always helping others.” One childhood friend, Toni Ann, called him “the most unselfish man I ever knew.” Many others in our tiny upstate town perched by the Delaware River, agreed. That was JJ. If anyone could beat cancer, it would be him. After all, using his father’s favorite maxim: “you can’t hurt steel.”
Now, three and a half years later, we pray for a miracle, for nothing is impossible with God. JJ and Kristen moved back in with his parents a few weeks ago, so they could help her with JJ’s care. Kristen longs for a brief moment alone with her husband, the tall, laughing, generous, devoted Marine, now shrunken to little more than a skeleton. Family and friends call daily, almost hourly, asking to see JJ, to say goodbye.
JJ and Kristen used to sing with us on Christmas Eves at St. Anthony’s in Yulan, New York. This year, I knew, they would not be able to walk up the stairs to the choir loft. Instead, I asked them to play Mary and Joseph. I knew, even in his weakened state, JJ would want to take the part of a saint he greatly admired, who accepted the Christ child as his own, protected and guided him. Saint Joseph. JJ may have looked on it as a last mission, to make it to Christmas Eve, to show others what a father does for his family. To live, every moment, right to the end.
He was always such a fine, eloquent speaker, when the cancer was in remission, and even more poignantly when it returned. For three years, JJ travelled, speaking out, encouraging others to learn about the dangers of assisted suicide, using his own case as an example, waking up each morning determined to give his family one more day of being together for, as he put it “every day is a gift and you can’t ever let that go.”
So, at our Christmas Eve Mass, JJ was wheeled up to stand beside his wife in front of the church at our Christmas Eve Mass. Perched behind the big organ in the choir loft, I couldn’t see them well. I was busy playing their favorite hymn, keeping time with our hastily assembled choir, mostly friends of JJ and his wife, Kristen. Their fine baritones and tenors all but overwhelmed our few sopranos, singing the Christmas version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah.’
Kristen was dressed in a long, gauzy blue robe, with a hood of fine tulle, covered with tiny rhinestones that twinkled under the church’s hanging lights, like a crown of stars surrounding her blonde hair. Baby Lucas stretched restlessly in her arms. At five months, he didn’t understand why Daddy never held him any more. His older brother, five year old James, dressed as a shepherd, stood by his mother, cheerfully waving at some friends in the pews. His six-year-old cousins stood one step above and behind him in white robes and feather headbands, tiny, dark-haired angels looking out at the crowd which filled our little country church to overflowing. It was a moment where time stood still, a moment of beauty.
We were too busy then, focusing on that precious moment, to think about what came next.
JJ had made it. He was here. The doctors had said he would be gone well before Christmas. He sat, erect and determined, in his brown St. Joseph robe, beside his radiant young wife, weeping a little, but occasionally lifting his head, to look around at the little church he’d grown up in, now packed to the rafters with family and friends. His eyes were dark with pain, but his jaw was firm. He nodded, as if he were saying “I am. You think I’m finished? But I am here.”
After Mass, friends gathered outside and serenaded him with Silent Night, one more time, holding their lighters in their hands, against the darkness of the rainy winter night.
Later, it would snow, all night long, and the temperature would drop from 40 degrees down into the single digits. A much smaller crowd would show up for the Christmas morning Masses. JJ’s strength ebbed as the year ended. Angels drew near, waiting, ready. On December 30th, he accepted his final mission, soaring into a new life, eternal life with his beloved Savior. Always a leader, he rejoiced with the angels, and hopes, one day, to lead his family and friends into Paradise. It is typical of JJ, a fan of grueling Spartan races (yes, even during chemo), that he would want to get to Heaven first.
We think of many things, as the year draws to a close. We regret opportunities not taken, projects not completed, plans left for “another time.” But all we have is now. That’s what JJ taught us. In the end, he was right. Every day is a gift and you can’t ever let that go. As the year draws to a close, he remains in our hearts, saying “I am.”