Yulan, N.Y. — A family member, I think one of James Joseph Hanson’s sisters, held up six-month-old baby Lucas for all the packed church to see. They were, as it happens, right in front of the Baby Jesus in the crèche on the altar, still on display, for Christmas season. The church, St. Anthony of Padua, was poinsettia-filled, with strings of Christmas lights. This was in New York State, deep in the redder part that we tend not to hear about as much. (During the course of the day, an assemblywoman talked about the upcoming feast of the Epiphany in relation to Hanson’s life; such observations, drawing on the Church calendar, would be less common downstate.) Lucas was testimony to faith and endurance and love. More than three years ago, J. J. Hanson 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 its time.
I put those words into his mouth after hearing his parish priest recall his experience of J. J.. In his early days at St. Anthony, he explained, J. J., who was 35 when he died just days after attending Christmas Eve Mass, would drive himself to church, sometimes with his 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.” He found strength in his faith and in love.
And even if you don’t believe in God, this baby is such love. And there was something so remarkable about the people who packed the overflowing church. (Many participated in the Mass of Christian Burial from the parish hall, across the street.) The cyclone-snow-bomb storm (the term appears to be meteorology’s rhetorical battle with politics, for attention) was hitting in earnest, and yet people didn’t stay home. They came from California, Florida, D.C., and other places outside the Empire State.
It was hard not to think of recent stories about people celebrated for having taken their own lives in the face of grave conditions — Brittany Maynard, for example, a 29-year-old woman who had the same cancer that J. J. Hanson did. In 2014, she had moved to Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal. What tender mercies could she have lived, what graces could her friends and so many others have experienced through her life lived through to the end? That’s how people talked here. J. J. and his radiant wife Kristen helped friends new and old face similar diagnoses, and in even more-arduous circumstances.
Nothing was sugarcoated about Hanson’s battle with brain cancer. He’d be the first to say that there are days when you’re depressed, that it’s agonizing. But that’s why we have family and community: to love, and to have love us through such difficulties.
And it was hard to walk away from the snowy prayerful day without wanting to be better and believing it was possible. One friend recalled how on their last visit, even as his body was deteriorating, J. J. asked, “What can we do to help people?” He had in mind to create a walking trail around a local lake, so that people in this rural part of the state could safely exercise and appreciate creation. (After Mass, the assemblywoman present at the celebration of his life committed to moving the idea along.)
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,’ which is, as many explained, how J. J. Hanson lived.
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 real financially backed pressure, to adopt physician-assisted suicide as law. J. J. Hanson 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,” which is, as many explained, how J. J. lived.
Sometime in 2016 , Hanson told me in an interview: “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 that his work here was done. It continues, though, in “the legacy of hope” that the witness of his life gave testimony to. The world needs more of us living that. And could it be mere coincidence that his Lucas was held up in the waning days of the Christmas season during which J. J. died, as a reminder of that hope that is the incarnation of God and the eternal promise of his faith? A child who gives testimony to hope. A child who is in many ways hope itself.