It was the little things. Shoveling the sidewalk in his pajamas and bathrobe, carrying a couple of teenage pumpkin smashers by the scruff of their necks and turning them over to police. Wearing shorts with black socks and sandals; or playing 500, Monopoly, or cribbage until the wee hours in the morning about which Joseph Hanneman reminisced while sitting vigil – his dad flittering between this world and the next.
He loved his dad, David, a well-respected, former alderman, county board supervisor, municipal chief executive, and mayor of Sun Prairie, but he didn’t really know him until his father’s final journey to heaven.
In his book, “The Journey Home: My Father’s Story of Cancer, Faith and Life-Changing Miracles,” Joe, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish, Racine, shares his experience with his dad’s incurable lung cancer diagnosis, through his final months and his last message to his family.
Journey began before cancer diagnosis
Joe realized his dad’s journey home began long before the cancer diagnosis, and the ability to gracefully accept his path was the result of his ardent faith as a lifelong Roman Catholic.
“For 53 years, my dad was a member of the Knights of Columbus, including 35 years as a Fourth Degree Sir Knight,” he said. “He did a lot of charitable and patriotic work with the Knights. He was also an extraordinary minister of holy Communion at Sacred Heart of Jesus and Mary Catholic Church for 12 years.”
David’s faith was an example to members of his close-knit family and circle of friends as he gracefully carried his cross.
“The Journey Home”
is available through Amazon.com or through Joseph Hanneman’s Web site.
“Once I saw the Holy Spirit working in all of our lives, the whole picture began to make sense,” said Joe. “The ‘why’ of cancer. The knowledge that suffering does have a meaning if it is united to Christ’s sufferings. The realization that the destination of it all is a home with God in heaven. I truly believe the Holy Spirit worked through Dad’s illness and death to bring these messages home to us and others.”
While the book is a tribute to his father, it is also a shared legacy of faith and suffering passed from a father to a son. The crisp, cool October day in 2006 was painful, surreal and like a punch to the gut when Dr. Gregory Motl delivered the grim diagnosis in a stuffy office inside the Dean Medical Clinic in Sun Prairie.
‘Lifetime of lessons from Dad’s suffering’
Through three years of mind-numbing painkillers, chemotherapy, illnesses and blood transfusions, Joe sat by David’s side, praying, often saying nothing, but serving as a quiet comfort while his dad regained his role as teacher.
“I learned a lifetime worth of lessons from Dad’s sufferings and his cancer,” explained Joe. “I learned that seemingly senseless suffering takes on meaning through God. Dad was called to carry a cross called lung cancer. He did it with quiet determination and grace. He never once asked, ‘Why me?’ My job was to support him and to be a careful observer of his journey so it could be shared with others. I didn’t fully figure this out until after he died.”
While it wasn’t openly shared, Joe knew that his father’s faith was tested throughout the disease. David often confided in close friend and priest, Msgr. Duane Moellenberndt from Sacred Hearts of Jesus and Mary Church in Sun Prairie, about death and dying.
“They talked it through and that was a big comfort to him,” said Joe. “Whether he was well enough to make it to Mass, Dad received the holy Eucharist regularly. He had a favorite black-bead rosary he kept with him, given by my mom’s father, Earl Mulqueen Sr. Even though his cross was heavy, he kept his feet moving toward Calvary.”
Joe still marvels at his father’s graceful embrace of death because he wasn’t one to speak of it or complain. He just trusted and followed his path.
“His journey reminds me of the quote attributed to St. Francis: ‘Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words when necessary,’” said Joe. “Like all of us, my dad was imperfect. I make no claim to the contrary. But that’s part of what makes his journey home have such meaning.”
Jesus led family on the journey
The greatest lesson for Joe was that the seemingly unmatched puzzle pieces of suffering fit and joined to form a breathtaking work of art. He learned that each of us is called to follow Jesus no matter the cost, and by dying to ourselves, we rise to him in the home he prepared for us.
“Jesus led us all through this journey, with sign after sign,” said Joe. “And at the end of Dad’s life, he gave us a glimpse at what Easter Sunday really looks like. I wrote in the book that this left an indelible imprint on my soul. And it is true. Seeing my dad step into eternity after his own personal Calvary is something I can never forget. It’s why I had to write this book.”
Miracles happened throughout David’s suffering, but it was his last few breaths that brought the deepest and most powerful understanding of God’s love for us and the new home that awaits after we die, Joe said.
“The night Dad died, we kept a vigil at his bedside at HospiceCare Inc., near Madison,” said Joe, who was joined by his mom, sisters, Amy and Marghi and brother David. “We sat around his bed and told stories from growing up in Sun Prairie. It was almost like those Saturday nights at home playing games at the kitchen table. Dad had been virtually comatose all day. He seemed very far away. About 11:30 p.m., my mom started praying the Lord’s Prayer. The five of us held hands and said the ‘Our Father.’ At the end of the prayer, my dad’s lips moved and he said, ‘Amen.’ He could hear us praying and he prayed with us!”
It seemed as if David had passed to heaven after that last Amen, April 14, 2007, but he had one more startling and life changing message for the family, and one that Joe shares with readers to energize their paths to Jesus.
Hopes book leads others to Christ
“I hope the book strengthens people’s faith and leads them to Christ and his church; that’s the purpose of it all,” said Joe. “I want people to be uplifted by the book, to realize that even sad stories have great endings. But, I believe the Lord has much more in mind. If you approach the book with even a measure of faith, it will strengthen you. Life lived by faith is a journey and a destination. Christ is the center of both. Those messages resonate from this book.”
While the process of death is not pretty, the acceptance for those making sense of losing their loved one is also not pretty. The strain on Joe’s faith was excruciating, he said, but once he surrendered his own powerlessness, God began healing and preparing his heart.
“When I first heard the diagnosis, I panicked. I thought, ‘We’ve got to fix this; get rid of this disease,’ he confessed. “Over time I realized that it was not my job to fix it or make it go away. I prayed that whatever happened, God’s will would be done, and my dad would find the strength he needed to get through it all. Both things happened, although not in the way I would have imagined. As each piece fell into place during the journey, I felt a nudge from God. Like a tap on the shoulder. I got plenty of reminders that God had it all worked out. After Dad was safely home, I realized how much my faith had grown. It was tested, yes, but it became anchored like I could never have imagined.”