A family member — I think one of James Joseph Hanson’s sisters — held up 6-month old baby Lucas for all the packed church to see. They were standing right in front of the baby Jesus in the creche scene on the altar, still out during Christmas season. The church, St. Anthony of Padua, a bulwark of this small community about 100 miles from New York City, was filled with poinsettias. Baby Lucas was a physical testimony to faith, endurance and love.
More than three years ago, J.J. Hanson, Lucas’ father, was given a diagnosis of four months to live. Lucas is living testimony to why you don’t give up, even when experts say it’s over. It’s not over, Hanson might say, until God says it’s time. J.J. was 35 when he died just days after attending Christmas Eve Mass.
I put those words into his mouth after hearing his parish priest talk about J.J. When the priest was first assigned to the church, as he explained, J.J. was driving himself to church, sometimes with family. Then he would be in church, walking with a cane. Eventually, he would be in a wheelchair, letting himself be taken care of by family and friends. “As his body deteriorated, his spirit never did,” the priest said.
There was something so remarkable about the people who packed the overflowing church for J.J.’s funeral. The bomb cyclone snowstorm (a seemingly rhetorical meteorological battle for attention with politics) was hitting in earnest, and yet people didn’t stay away. And they came from California, Florida and D.C., to name a few.
It was hard not to think about recent stories about people celebrated for having taken their own lives in the face of grave conditions, including Brittany Maynard, who had the same cancer that J.J. Hanson had. The 29-year-old moved to Oregon in 2014, where assisted suicide is legal. What tender mercies could she have experienced — what graces could her friends and so many others have encountered — if her life was lived through to its natural end? That’s how people talked here.
It was hard not to walk away from the events of that snowy, prayerful day without wanting to be better and believing it was possible. One friend recalled how on their last visit, even as J.J.’s body was deteriorating, he asked: “What can we do to help people?” He wanted to install a walking trail around a local lake, so people in this rural part of the state could safely exercise and appreciate the beauty of creation. (The assemblywoman present at the celebration of his life committed to moving the idea along.)
The beginning of J.J.’s “public ministry” came when he was diagnosed. At the same time, his native New York was facing some choices — and financially backed pressure — to make physician-assisted suicide legal. J.J. saw another way. As the priest at St. Anthony’s put it, minutes after those gathered heard a scripture reading in which Jesus offers himself as the model for living, “J.J. wasn’t very different from Jesus.” Jesus, after all, “was giving hope even at the last minute,” to his doubting friends. And like Jesus, J.J. knew when he began his public ministry that he was leaving. He wanted to fulfill the purpose for which he was sent here.
When asked, J.J. would report, “Every day, I am doing better.” Or, “I’m getting better every day.” He could say that because the weakening of his body only strengthened his spirit. He could say that because he saw the world and his life through the eyes of faith. And he saw what a difference it made. What more could any of us ask for than to say, in all gratitude, “I’m getting better every day.” You can say that when you persevere in “pure love,” as many described how he lived.
Sometime in 2016 in an interview, Hanson told me “Every day is a gift. I love my family and treasure the time that I get to spend with them.” His priest described him as ready. He knew his work here was done. It continues, though, in the legacy of hope left by his life and its example.
And could it be mere coincidence that J.J.’s son Lucas was held up in the waning days of the Christmas season in which J.J. died? A child who gives testimony to hope. A child who is in many ways hope itself.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online and founding director of Catholic Voices USA. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org