Tuesday, May 10, 2011

“Life’s A Joy That Has To End”: John Hannah, Rest In Peace

A friend of mine died a couple weeks ago: alone, in pain, homeless in Detroit. I think a friend of mine died, anyway. I’m 99 percent sure it’s him, but lack firm knowledge to banish that one percent uncertainty.

Damn the internet, sometimes. Hard enough to keep abreast of everything important that happens to folks you care about in real life—but what of those you only know online, if they can’t go near a computer?

I belong to a small, semiprivate forum with roughly 70 active members, over half of whom have met each other in meatspace at various times. We all feel we know each other, to an extent … but how well can one person truly know another? Even those you see every day hold secrets in their private lives, and it’s even easier to keep secrets from those who only know you online.

One such person I’ve known for years through various fora (though never met in real life) went by the online moniker “J sub D.” His real name was John Hannah: a retired Navy chief; a widower still mourning Donna, his second wife and the love of his life until she died; a Detroit native who settled back there after he retired.

We got along smashingly well in our online chats, since we had similarly sarcastic tastes in humor. He always encouraged the give-em-hell articles I wrote for various papers and magazines, and would often quote (and link to) them in comment threads where he chatted online, though he never told me about his attempts to help my career; I only learned of them one day when I checked my personal blog stats and saw visitors from unfamiliar websites.

Last September, he told the forum he’d been diagnosed with Stage 3 lung cancer, but forbade us all from “making a fuss.” It was easy to pretend he was okay since we only read his online words; his typing always looked the same so we never noticed him wasting away. He also told us, “Someone once said 'Life’s a bitch and then you die,' which is only half-true. 'Life’s a joy that has to end' might be a better way to put it.” His attitude did, and does, make me ashamed of myself sometimes.

On March 25 he posted this:
Woot! Woot! I have now entered the uncharted (by me) waters of Stage 4. Just finished a week of R&R at the hospital for testing, testing and more testing. The docs discovered (via MRI due to numbness in face) three small lesions on my brain and tumors in my sinuses. I turned down "relatively minor" brain surgery (WTF is "minor" brain surgery?) and start getting by head blasted with radiation on Tuesday. I'll let you know if I turn green and grow monstrous muscles.
“Tuesday” would have been March 29. March 31 was the last day he ever posted at the forum. His word-of-the-day subscription had emailed him the definition of “dauphin,” which he posted. That started a rambling little discussion thread about word history and dolphins and old French nobility, and J sub D’s final post in that forum — his final post online anywhere, so far as I can determine — was a picture of the last Dauphin’s family crest, and his observation “ETA I really enjoy the etymologies.”

We never heard from him again.

Two weeks later I emailed him. He never responded. What I didn’t know — what none of us knew — is that somehow, despite his military pension, John lived in a homeless shelter the last few months of his life. To go online, he’d walk to Wayne State University and use the library computers.

I could’ve given him the old laptop I don’t use anymore, with a prepaid wireless subscription or something on it, if I’d known he had to walk outside through a Detroit winter for internet access. I could’ve given him more than that, if he’d only let me know he needed it.

I learned about the homeless shelter—and John’s death—today, when I found this two-day-old story by Mitch Albom in the Detroit Free Press:
John D. Hannah died once.

Now he is dying again.

The second death is the death of being forgotten. And Hannah, who served his country for years, has been forgotten.

His body lies alone in a cooled room in the Gates of Heaven Funeral Home in Detroit, thanks to the grace of its 66-year-old owner, Joseph Norris, who said, "My heart told me I had to do this."

Norris is keeping Hannah unburied, in a donated coffin, until someone from his family, some brother, sister, child, uncle, cousin -- even a friend -- comes forward to say they knew him.
Does “we often exchanged jokes and debated political matters online, and I miss him terribly now that he’s gone, but I have no idea what he looked like” equal “I knew him”? What about “I already knew every single personal detail mentioned in the story, except the minor piddling little detail about his living in a homeless shelter?
For two weeks, no one has, despite Hannah's years of service in the Navy, despite an honorable discharge, despite calls and a letter to the U.S. Military Retirement Pay Division. Bureaucracy and privacy concerns (ironic for a man whom no one has claimed) bog down the process.

Meanwhile, Hannah's corpse remains unvisited. Surely, there is someone reading this who knew him? A man can't simply die in the state where he was raised, in the city where he lived and have no one to stand by his coffin, can he?

Sadly, he can. In the world of homelessness, one can die as quietly as a falling leaf.
That’s the first mention of homelessness in the story. Also the first mention of homelessness I ever heard in relation to my online friend J sub D, the retired Navy chief with whom I’d chat online. I knew he had his pension; he mentioned it to us and its existence is strongly implied in the story. The Navy career, the beloved dead wife, the lung cancer, the birthday on August 11, 1955 … I knew that. I knew all that. I just didn’t know he was sleeping in a homeless shelter.

He died alone. Some of us talked about making a road trip to Detroit, but by the time we reached out to ask him, he was already out of internet access and thus out of reach forever.

So I didn’t know him as well as I thought, but I know he was smart and funny and responded to tales of injustice with an outraged sarcasm I effortlessly empathized with. I know—from reading Albom’s story and the comments on it—that he died homeless, and apparently estranged from his family; I only speak to one or two relatives anymore myself, so it looks like we could empathize in ways I never knew.

At least not when he was still alive and it could do him any good. None of us at the forum, his friends from the internet, knew anything in time to do him any good. Perhaps the relationship was merely “virtual,” yet the loss I feel now is entirely real.

***

ADDENDUM: Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings suggests making donations to I Am My Brother's Keeper, the homeless shelter where John spent his last months before going into the hospital.

ADDITIONAL ADDENDUM: It's also worth considering a small donation to Joseph Norris, the funeral home operator who donated the coffin, took care of J-sub's body and notified the reporter; without him, none of us might ever have known for certain what happened to our friend. Norris is a small business owner, and I doubt he's rich enough for such to be mere pocket-change expenses for him.

Joseph Norris
Gates of Heaven Funeral Home
4412 Livernois Avenue
Detroit, MI 48210
(313) 894-2427

THIRD ADDENDUM: The funeral service was today (Thursday, May 12), at 1 pm Detroit time. Members of the forum called the funeral home yesterday, and heard that military representatives, shelter workers and a couple of family members were planning to attend on Chief John Hannah's behalf. Meanwhile, this post has started getting hits from people who knew or were looking for John Hannah, but maybe never heard of J sub D. If that's you, here are some sites you might want to check out where J sub D's friends remember him, in the posts themselves and especially in the comment threads:

J sub D, RIP (Jesse Walker at Reason Hit and Run)
J sub D, Rest in Peace (Radley Balko at The Agitator)
Sad News (Thoreau at Unqualified Offerings)
John Hannah (J sub D), RIP (DA Ridgely)

43 Comments:

Blogger Dave-o-ramA said...

Shit. I wish I had something better to add. We're all going to miss you, Minarchist Mouse.

5:51 PM  
Blogger rctlfy said...

Jennifer, thank you for writing this warm story about J sub D. I kept many of his clever responses because he was a unique man. I too wish I knew, and could have helped him somehow. Was it pride? Or, the famous libertarian independence?

I weep for him, and I think he would laugh at me but really, he was observant man and probably knew my true heart

Regards,
rather

10:51 PM  
Anonymous The Wine Commonsewer said...

Thank you.

11:54 PM  
Blogger John said...

Wow. That is just horrible. He was quite clever and smart and I always enjoyed his comments on Hit and Run. I wish I had something deep or better to add. But I will miss him as well.

12:41 AM  
Anonymous JW said...

Shit. There's something a bit odd about being saddened by the loss of someone you never met and only knew from words posted on a web site. Still, he seemed like a helluva good guy.

Thank you for letting us know, Jennifer.

5:19 AM  
Blogger Pro Libertate said...

Very nice, Jennifer. I always liked J sub D in our little corner in the comments section of Hit & Run. He'll be missed.

I'm so saddened that he had to endure so much at the end of his life. Yet you couldn't tell that from his comments.

6:40 AM  
Anonymous SIV said...

Thank you for writing this Jennifer.


RIP J sub D

6:47 AM  
Anonymous NoStar said...

To honor John Hannah aka J sub D, I made a donation to Reason Magazine.

I have made many friends at Reason's Hit&Run blog. Meeting them in the real world is always a pleasure. My meeting with J sub D will now have to wait until the next world.

Jennifer, I hope I don't have that long of a wait before we meet.

7:39 AM  
Anonymous TRTB said...

I'm a long-time H&R reader although I rarely comment. Like many, I'm shocked and deeply saddened to hear of John's passing and even more shocked that he had become homeless.

I wanted to thank you Jennifer not only for writing this moving post, but also, especially, for connecting the dots and letting those of us not as close to John know about his passing. How much sadder it would have been had he quietly slipped away without any of us ever even knowing.

I hope his family discovers that he was liked and respected by so many on-line friends.

Thank you.

7:52 AM  
Anonymous Spoonman. said...

That's sad to hear. Thank you for writing this.

7:55 AM  
Anonymous Tommy_Grand said...

RIP borther.

9:00 AM  
Anonymous Russ 2000 said...

In a way I'm sort of glad I never knew he was homeless. He didn't make it a point that people know that about him. People's first reaction to homelessness is pity and J Sub D didn't want that. Accepting the kindness of strangers is one thing, indirectly asking for it is another.

Thoreau's suggestion is an excellent one.

9:27 AM  
Blogger Jennifer Abel said...

Jeff and I just made a donation to the shelter in his memory. I know he wouldn't have wanted all this sympathy we're shoveling his way -- had he wanted it, he could easily have collected it while he was still alive -- but tough shit, Eliot. He was my friend, and he wouldn't let me do anything for him while he was alive, but he can't stop me now.

I really would have been happy to give him my old laptop. All it does these days is gather dust. And I could have sent him little cheerful Christmas gifts or something, too. But, of course, it never occurred to me, to wonder if an honorably discharged Navy veteran with a chief's pension could be homeless.

9:45 AM  
Blogger Bronwyn said...

Oh, this breaks my heart. We're all so much more than words on a screen.

I've been alternately lurking and posting, but always reading, many of you here, at hitandrun, at Balko's place, for almost 10 years.

It's a new phenomenon, I guess, to feel such a tug in your heart for people you've never met, but people with whom you can share jokes and serious discussion just as well.

For what it's worth, I care about you all. I cared about J sub D, too, and I will miss him.

10:27 AM  
Anonymous smacky said...

That was a nice tribute, Jennifer.

11:36 AM  
Anonymous Stevo Darkly said...

Thanks for writing this, Jennifer.

12:22 PM  
Blogger Geoff Nathan said...

Seems very lame to join in with 'Yeah, me too. Shit!' But I'll do it anyway.
Really enjoyed reading his posts--reached out to him once, a couple years ago to try and meet in 'meatspace' but he never answered. I guess his reclusiveness was manifesting even then.
I wish there were more of us in the Detroit area--would be good to get together for a beer or something some time.
It strikes me that I probably walked past him in the Wayne State Library--I'm in there pretty often.
Olav ha-shalom. RIP.

12:53 PM  
Blogger Jenny B said...

Wow. I heard the news from Stevo today, and I'm just... wow. You did a great job with this writeup, incidentally.

This does make meeting in 'meatspace' seem downright important.

4:40 PM  
Anonymous The Bearded Hobbit said...

Thanks for writing this, Jennifer.

Fare well, J sub D.

... Hobbit

5:16 PM  
Blogger carcass said...

Jennifer, thanks for what you've done here. Jsub' was always one of my favorite H&R commenters. I've made donations to I am My Brother's Keeper Ministries and the reason Foundation in his honor, and I hope other will consider doing the same.

5:52 PM  
Anonymous rana said...

Thanks Jennifer. That was very touching.
We exchanged emails from time to time. I only wish I had kept in touch with him more often... and sooner than last month when I never heard back from him.
This experience has given me new perspective on how human bonds can form in unexpected ways.
I will miss JsubD but I'm grateful for the laughs, as I am grateful to all of you.
Just thought I'd share.

7:14 PM  
Blogger John Markley said...

God, I had no idea. Thank you for writing this. Rest in peace.

8:41 PM  
Anonymous the innominate one said...

I'm sorry to hear about the loss of J sub D. Thanks for an excellent tribute, Jennifer.

If souls exist, I wish fair winds and following seas for the master chief.

12:58 PM  
Anonymous Dangerman said...

Jennifer, thanks for writing this.

4:04 PM  
Anonymous dogmeat said...

Jennifer,

Ed posted regarding your loss at Dispatches. Having gone through a similar situation where losing a friend had to be researched and discovered after their online persona went silent, I wanted to stop by and extend my condolences. I didn't know "J sub D" and, based on what you said about him, feel that loss.

12:38 PM  
Anonymous Chuckroks said...

Thanks for posting.

1:32 PM  
OpenID obbop said...

From a Navy veteran to John Hannah and Jennifer Abel;

"Hand....salute."

"Two."

Carry on.

(and thank you for posting the story, dear Lady.)

2:34 PM  
Blogger Simon said...

We all die alone, but it is a comfort to have company at the end. This man was denied that. Godspeed, John Hannah.

3:07 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Where's the yakkity-sax now?

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Fellow Navy Chief -

May fairer winds carry your spirit and soul to their final destination.

I am ashamed that we were not there for you at the end.


Regards,

A fellow Navy Chief who read this blog entry 2 weeks too late.

5:09 PM  
Blogger Librarians ROCK! said...

Jennifer,
Thank you so much for this poignant post. I worked at one of the Wayne State libraries where J sub D spent his days. I may have known him, or he may have been one of the many I didn't. Detroit is a hard gig, made harder by the brutality of weather, lack of services, and the ease of obtaining alcohol and drugs. No judgment- just my reality while living in the 313. Detroit is a city where people can slide right off the edge and be gone forever. I have a brother who disappears randomly and know it's impossible to keep track of an adult with no desire to be kept track of, but I would hope someone-somewhere would be able to point a finger in the direction of my brothers disappearance.
Thank you for being that person for John Hannah. With your archive and your article- may he never be forgotten.

8:25 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jennifer, many years ago as a young woman I becamse "close" online friends with a man named Bob. He was an Italian-Canadian, who was incredibly witty, and fast became a father figure of sorts to me. I didn't realize how much I cared for Bob until I learned he'd died at home alone from a heart attack. He was a lovely man and friend who I still miss today. Thank you for you blog post.

10:46 AM  
Anonymous Baylink said...

Wow... that's hard.

This is becoming a less and less uncommon situation as more and more people live more and more of their lives online; we will not all be as well followed as my late, favorite amateur meterologist, Alan Sullivan:

http://www.seablogger.com/

http://baylink.pitas.com/20110516.html#FRESHBILGE

and I note that his commenters have started up their own thing here:

http://rarereaders.seablogger.com/

because he, unlike your friend the Chief, had the luxury of engaging a little more fully with his constituency.

It's a problem each community will have to deal with on some level, in some way, but I don't think that knowing that it's universal really makes it any easier to deal with.

He was your friend if you think he was your friend, regardless of whether you knew what he looked like or where he lived, and I am very sorry for your loss.

Four or five kleenex worth.

And to the Chief:

[ hand salute ]

[ two ]

10:50 AM  
Anonymous Emma said...

What a lovely forum you must frequent if you all care and worry about each other like that.
I'm sure that this gentleman had his reasons for not telling you, maybe he liked to 'talk' to people who wern't going to try to help him.

I wish I had friends like you...

11:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

There's an old myth that a retired Sailor dies when the tide goes out. I'm sorry to hear of the loss of a former messmate in the Goatlocker, even if we never did ship together. It's sad to hear how he died and puzzling, too. I grew up in an orphanage and made the Navy my home for a score of years, as did he, and it provided my safe harbor in pension and education and career. How do some steer into the shoals while others sail steady on? Where ever he is now, I hope he finds those fair winds and following seas. AD28 - splice the mainbrace *raises glass*.

12:17 PM  
Blogger Vincent Truman said...

Thanks for this.

12:42 PM  
Blogger Joedaaa said...

Roger Ebert just tweeted this.

1:35 PM  
Anonymous Lynne Gordon said...

Thank you for this post. You have touched my heart toda and I will never forget your words or the man I never knew, J sub D.

I would like to say, though, that we still have plenty of people in the online world who need our help in various ways.

Perhaps by helping one of them today, we can say that we helped J sub D.

2:30 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I read this after Ebert tweeted it and he was right. It is heartbreaking. As much as we can truly know anyone, it seems you knew this man, and that he was greatly loved. He may have been without company, but he wasn't alone because he knew you.

3:45 PM  
Blogger zuclinator said...

Did you happen to contact Mitch at the DFP. I'm sure he would be interested in knowing this about your friend

9:16 AM  
Blogger lori said...

I am still crying over this piece, and over J sub D...who I never read or knew. At all.

thank you Jennifer

4:19 PM  
Anonymous Kwix said...

Son of a bitch!

I can't believe I didn't know about this until today. Life has a habit of getting in the way and my absence from both HnR and our community in the ether has allowed JsubD's announcement and now his passing to slip by.

I'm glad you posted this perfect tribute to him Jennifer. Thanks.

2:44 PM  
Blogger Eva G. said...

Thank you for sharing this story.

7:25 PM  

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