“Life’s A Joy That Has To End”: John Hannah, Rest In Peace
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.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?”
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.
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.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.
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.
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.
Gates of Heaven Funeral Home
4412 Livernois Avenue
Detroit, MI 48210
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)