Pathei Mathos: What I Relearned the Last 12 Months

What doesn’t kill me, makes me sadder.

by Victor Davis Hanson // PJMedia

Photo via PJMedia
Photo via PJMedia

Greek tragedy often ends with a succession of personal disasters that doom an Oedipus or Ajax — apparently part of a divinely inspired nemesis (retribution) to pay back personal hubris (overweening pride).

The latter flaw seems to grow and grow until fate strikes the arrogant at the most opportune but still unlikely moment: a Nixon sweeping to a landslide victory in 1972, only to self-destruct over the cover-up of a two-bit, needless burglary. It apparently at last brought out his long-held character shortcoming (hamartia), theretofore seemingly either not too serious or at least adroitly managed.

The Sophoclean idea of eironeia (irony) — Oedipus cannot see until he is blind in the manner of the blind, but all-seeing Tiresias, whom he damned as sightless before his own blindness — suggests that the nature of one’s fate is often tragically ironic.

The swashbuckling George S. Patton, who braved death in his drive to Germany and was worried about his role in a peacetime world, was paralyzed in a minor traffic accident shortly after the Allied victory — and on the day before he was to go home and leave postwar Europe for good. He died not on the battlefield, but painfully in bed in a military hospital in Germany.

The idea of karma within the traditions of Buddhism and Hinduism is somewhat similar to Greek tragedy, though more geared to action rather than attitudes causing future accounting for past behaviors. Modern Western religions also share somewhat in both Eastern and Western notions of payback, even while on Earth before the final accounting in the hereafter.

Still, it certainly seems innately human (and thus egocentric) to try to make sense of present bad and good fortune by reviewing causation through one’s prior thoughts and deeds. The problem with mostly positive moral introspection is the narcissistic element: good or bad things don’t just happen to a single individual, but harm many of the uninvolved or innocent around him. Why do the innocents of Thebes have to suffer plague for Oedipus’s hubris?

It is all narcissism to think that catastrophes center on one person’s behavior, even if earned, and especially when they hurt innocent others. Aeschylus seems cruel to talk of pathei mathos, learning from pain.

I can see the logic of tragic collective vengeance, but even then, I don’t quite believe that a divine plan led to Hitler raging in his suicidal bunker as the logical retribution to his sick Nuremberg rants a decade — and six million innocents gassed —  earlier.

At best, all we can do, I think in our ignorance of causation, is to cover our bets and tread lightly and remain observant — keeping humble and modest in occasional good fortune (given so often that our blessings turn out to be dependent on the work of other friends and benefactors), while staying resolute in more frequent times of chaos and disaster, to be able to help and offer sanctuary to others.

It is wise to remember the good dead and emulate their example rather than to be caught up with the mediocre of the present. I certainly spend more time recalling the voice of my mother than listening to the televised psychodramas of our elite. Faith and transcendence in the end matter most, whether for us who believe in God and an eternal soul, or for the more agnostic humanists who trust that one’s good works now can affect others following them, from raising good children to planting an olive tree.

I’ve been trying to sort such thoughts out after the most terrible past 12 months. Everyone has horrific seasons. Nothing seems worse than losing parents. Mine died far too early, my mother from a malignant meningioma that first struck her at 64 while an appellate court judge; my indestructible father from a stroke at 75. Like most, I’ve had a few scrapes, a variety of accidents, diseases, and operations in some scary places.

But all one’s health seems the minor melodrama that it always really was. My granddaughter Lila was born December 5, 2013. Something seemed wrong almost at once. An adroit diagnosis at Stanford Medical Center found neonatal cholestasis, a severe malfunction of the liver, involving spikes in conjugated bilirubin. For days we researched the likely and quite scary causes — biliary atresia, alpha 1 syndrome, and worse. None had good prognoses. All had scary names.

But 10% of the infant cholestasis cases were in the literature dubbed “idiopathic” and resolved eventually. No one knew why. And so miraculously did tiny Lila’s — or so we thought.

Her bilirubin returned to normal; she survived and she seemed to recover. But by six or seven months something else was clearly wrong, or rather “delayed.” By March 2015 she was far behind in terms of walking and talking. We spent hours each night reading about post-cholestasis syndromes in almost every American and European journal we could find. Surely that mysterious liver disease had caused the delay — and thus catch-up would follow?

Not really.

More strange symptomology followed. Three weeks ago, after genetic testing, doctors diagnosed her with something known as Smith-Magenis syndrome, described as a “deletion of genetic material from a specific region of chromosome 17 (17p11.2). Although this region contains multiple genes, recently researchers discovered that the loss of one particular gene the retinoic acid induced 1 or RAI1 is responsible for most of the characteristic features of this condition.”

Previously SMS was often thought to be a severe subset of either Down’s syndrome or autism. The strange and multifarious symptoms are too numerous to list here. A wonderful foundation [1] does its best to fight for help for this tragic syndrome and I am going to try to support it according to my station.

And yet a wonderful thing arose throughout this ordeal. The more the bleak diagnoses and worse prognoses piled on, the more Lila smiled and exhibited the most outgoing and warm personality. (Was it due to the SMS trait of not feeling physical pain, or its associated symptom of natural exuberance with a tendency to hurt oneself rather than others?)

At 18 months, I’ve noticed that her efforts bring out the best in the entire family, a little less concern for self, a little more for those with less natural advantages than the healthy. We look for other Lilas more than ever now. She was named after my aunt Lila Davis (1917-1980), who lived 55 years in my present living room, here in the home of my grandparents, after suffering a most severe case of polio shortly after birth. From 5 to 25 I remember her as a brilliant, warm woman, trapped in a twisted body that could scarcely move, but which seemed irrelevant after talking to her for only a mere seconds. I confess I was worried, being superstitious, when my daughter chose that beloved family name, but now that tie through the halls of memory brings solace and a strange sort of continuity.

My other daughter Susannah was most worried about Lila’s first nine months. She frequently in 2014 drove up to Santa Cruz from her job at USC to visit and help out. But she was an empath, and that occasionally worried me. Susannah did not so much as sense others’ doubts, insecurities, physical pains, and depressions as to take them on to such an extent they almost manifested themselves as her own.

She seemed to have a unique ability to make others feel better, but all too often at the cost of herself feeling worse during these moments of strange osmoses. I would warn her that was not healthy — to agonize more about whether her professor was fairly evaluated and appreciated than whether he was a good teacher and scholar, or why someone promoted over her probably needed the extra pay more than did she. Empaths are not at all doormats, but often determined to succeed precisely to use their accumulated resources to become even more empathetic to others.

As children age, parents go through stages of relative focusing. The last five years I did so with Susannah. When she went to Chile for two years, I tried to email her daily and call weekly and send packages bi-monthly. When she returned and went to the MPP graduate program at Pepperdine, I was lucky enough to teach there as a visiting professor and see her weekly. When she went to work at USC we talked on her lunch hour each day.

As parents age, they gain perspective and calm, but also at the cost of growing pessimism or even a dangerous sense of preordination. These can be deadly pathologies as they take away the necessary spirit and audacity, so important in getting up one more morning and heading on to the next mission. (My 86-year-old grandfather was putting in new end posts in the vineyard on the day before he had a heart attack and died; my 80-year-old Swedish grandfather was breaking a young horse in his last few months.) Susannah seemed to know that and in the last year called me more than ever.

Her optimism about the human spirit was infectious. Vampire-like, we all drew on it. She would call and prod: “In that last lecture, did you make sure to call on everyone in class? Hey, Dad, I watched that YouTube video of a talk you gave, you should have been nicer to that guy who asked the mean question. Why haven’t you called your twin brother after all these years, after all, he is your twin! Do you have enough walkers available for the tour coming up? Oh, don’t worry, I sort of like driving the 405 at commute time.”

On the day before the 2014 election, Susannah called right in the middle of a lecture I was giving (I had not given her my schedule that day). She left a message, “Hey, Dad, I feel great. Got over that cold and so happy to be at work. Missed just two days, first missed days ever.” We talked at two. And I drove the next day to work. All was good as was normal.

But on the way up the 99, she called, “Hey dad, it’s lunch here. But I have a terrible headache and vomiting, and for some reason I can’t see very well.”

Chaos followed. In the next hours, there was an immediate family collective rush to Los Angeles. Misdiagnoses. An initial ambulance team visit had assured that she was fine — and then left. Wrong hospital. A blood clot, but miraculously removed. But then worse news: was it caused by an undiagnosed case of leukemia (at 27 to a seemingly healthy young woman, vegetarian, nondrinker, and nonsmoker?)

But at least it was a sort of leukemia that was treatable. But then on further examination it was not so treatable, but rather an aggressive form of AML. Then in hours yet another clot and another, far more extensive brain surgery. The WBC spiked at over 100,000. I wandered and walked most of those five nights in East Hollywood around the Kaiser hospital, trying to think of what regimen, what doctor, what hospital, what miracle, what prayer might yet save her. Over the next five days the unimaginable became all too real. And then she was gone as abruptly as she called to say she was suddenly sick. Leukemia is not a cold, so how can one go from robust to comatose in hours?

All the clichés that you all have heard about losing a child, and which we all of the uninitiated may have found strange or foreign — “I wished it was me,” “How unfair that parents outlive children,” “How did I cause this,” “Why didn’t I do that or this,” “I should have been a better parent, listener, friend, helper, benefactor, etc.” — I assure you turn out hardly to be clichés, but simply reflect over the centuries what is innate in every parent’s brain in extremis.

We occasionally had always gone to the local cemetery to put flowers on the graves of our ancestors . Selma has five generations of them. While there, I had always noticed that a few stones of other families were blanketed with flowers on any given day, and seemingly for years on end. How strange. But now? Not so strange at all. I found myself and others in the family doing exactly the same thing, yesterday and tomorrow. I built a classical commemorative plaza in the yard with stone urns and near life-size lions guarding a memorial bench, all re-landscaped with lilies and irises and Japanese maples beneath an arbor of wisteria, planted in 1880 — and now all growing so rapidly that it is almost surreal.

As we age and try to make sense of nonsense, we have only the solace that what is inexplicable now will be most explicable soon, and that we are not natives,  as we assume, here, but refugees from home somewhere else, and that what seems all too real and hopeless we hope is a just a dream of what will be soon very real and hopeful.

I would amend Nietzsche’s often quoted line, “from life’s school of war: what does not kill me makes me stronger,” to something like “what does not kill me, makes me sadder,” and leave it to fate whether sadder in the end proves stronger or wiser.

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57 thoughts on “Pathei Mathos: What I Relearned the Last 12 Months”

  1. So often we look at our heroes (yes, Victor; you’re one of them) and think that their lives must be great. Thank you for your transparency here in sharing insights no man should have to grasp, and yet so many do. Your loss has been our gain. Praying for you and your family.

  2. I’m not an american and have never even been to america, nor am I a great student of classics or politics or history, but your works have in recent years been greatly enlightening and greatly appreciated in what often appears to be a world of much ignorance. I wish I could partly return the debt with some wise saying but have neither the wisdom or the words, but as one of the many across the world that you help and inform, sincere thanks.

  3. Dear Dr. Hanson, I read you all the time, your erudite posts are always well researched and spot on. Since you and I share a love of history and reading (I own several of your books), it almost seems like we have an empathetic connection as to what’s important and concerning about the events of the day. Thus I was particularly sorry to read your post about your family events of the last year and especially the passing of Susannah. No one can put the death of a child in any kind of sensible perspective, so I won’t even try. Suffice it to say that she (like all of us one day) is in a better place. My thought and prayers go out to you and your family as you deal with these horrific happenings, and I can only hope that the forthcoming year provides much better news for you than the one just concluded.

  4. I have only recently discovered your website although I have enjoyed your books for over a decade. I anxiously await each new posting and have marveled at your capacity to produce thoughtful essays on such a consistent basis. Now to know that this was all being done during a period of personal sadness leaves me stunned. I’m am so sorry for your loss, please accept the condolences of a fan and an admirer. I will be calling my daughter today after a long period of estrangement. I can only wish to be half as noble as you when my sky darkens.

  5. I am sorry for your losses. Now I understand why some of your past posts seemed tinged by sadness. Thank you for sharing.

  6. Thomas Cochran

    Dear Mr. Hanson,
    I have read so much of what you have written for more than 10 years that I almost felt I could address you as Victor. My condolence to you is heartfelt. Your words were important to me as I realized perhaps for the first time in my older age that even those with exceptional brains, ability, and contributions to others have the same sadness and bewilderment when death strikes its inevitable blow. That was a humbling and useful realization as in future I am likely to be more understanding of others.

    More importantly your words were an inspiration to me. In the past I let death transform many of my thoughts into anger, despair, and pessimism. Those acids addled my performance and caused pain to others.

    Your ability not to let such introspection stop you from continuing your excellent work and from giving insight to others is admirable. Thanks to your eloquent sharing of pain I believe many people will be better equipped to handle it positively when it cascades into their lives.

    Bless you, sir, and may you have “fair seas and following winds” soon.

  7. Bill Schroeder

    You live , think and write . There is an unusual ability to articulate wisdom , pain, warmth and humility .
    Thanks Professor for sharing that deep learning .

  8. Dr. Hanson,

    My sincere condolences on your loss of your daughter. Unexpected deaths are the hardest to accept, and the loss of kin is especially telling. But know that there are many of us that look forward daily to your writings, musings, and educational commentary. I for one find your insights to be wonderful and spot on. Your writing today in a different and much more personal way is heartfelt and touching.
    It is wonderful that even in pain you can write about it so lucidly and share it with your readers. Thank you.

  9. “Felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas.” Please accept my unreserved condolences, and profound respect for your clarity and perceptiveness and for sharing it with us. I offer the thought that “what does not kill me makes me wiser”. And in solace, although difficult, I hope your sadness will soon resolve in the integrity of your understanding and enjoyment of what you have, and not so much in what you have lost.

  10. Robert Anthony

    Dr. Hanson,
    I am so sorry. Our family’s prayers will be for your daughter, grandaughter and you.
    Thank you for your writing, your clear voice. You are much appreciated and respected
    nationwide. We will pray for your comfort and peace.
    Best regards,
    R. Anthony

  11. Dear Friend Victor,

    I am pretty sang froid… but you have left me in tears. My deepest condolences on your loss. There are no adequate words beyond that.

  12. Phillip Christman

    Thank you, VDH, for this deeply personal article. Since hearing from you earlier concerning your daughter’s untimely death I somehow knew that you would, in time, tell us more. But, you have done more than that, you have put words to what many of your readers have felt themselves and have been unable to communicate it to others as well as you have.
    God Bless you and your family and your daughter’s memory.

  13. John the Econ

    Your insight at the end will be bouncing through my mind for some time. Indeed, many of my losses have certainly made me stronger. But they certainly haven’t made me any happier.

    The hardest part for those of us who strive to make sense of the world is accepting that there are those things for which there is no sense to be made. In that case, with sincerity all I can offer are my prayers that you at least find peace with it.

  14. David Parsons

    The struggle to build and keep happiness for ourselves and our children – seems as unpredictable as enjoying a warm breeze then blinded by a speck of dust. In life, the struggle seems to be the purpose.

  15. Donald DaCosta

    Dear Victor, I read almost every column you write, enjoy them all, am a bit befuddled by some but interpret that as my ignorance of history, a subject you know so well. This article took me by surprise, not at all an unpleasant one but unlike most of what you write for public consumption this one was extremely personal in nature, revealing much of the sadness you’ve sufferred as a result of circumstances completely beyond your control that effected those most dear to your heart. I empathhize with your plight and wish you all the best in whatever the future holds and hope your sorrow dissipates with the passage of time.

  16. Eric Ligtendag

    Mr. Hanson, my condolences to your family & you.
    Nothing else can be said.
    Don’t let the sadness rule your life, if possible.
    Greetings from Maria & Eric

  17. Mr. Hanson, I often read you, but this brought tears to me. We see through a glass darkly, but someday we shall see Him face to face. He also promises to wipe away all tears.

  18. “Life is such a short, bitter/sweet experience.”

    A good friend of mine said this to me shortly after his 32 year old sister died of metastatic breast cancer. The diagnosis had taken everyone by surprise as only six months earlier she had given birth to her first child and seemed perfectly healthy. The cancer was very aggressive and once it had spread to her brain, difficult to treat. After a few rounds of chemo, the doctors had told her there was nothing more they could do. In hopes of a miracle, she spent her last days at an experimental clinic in Mexico. This decision would later compound my friend’s grief, as he had had the unenviable task of flying down there to retrieve her body in order to bring it home for burial in Michigan.

    My friend, C, is probably the brightest person I’ve ever met. He is a talented jazz musician who has a razor sharp wit and quite possibly the best sense of humor I’ve ever come across. Raised in a close-knit Irish-Catholic family in rural Michigan, he also has a deep sense of right and wrong and more common sense than most people, including myself. I’ve often sought his advice and counsel and have never regretted it.

    We worked together at a small grocery store back about thirty years ago. This was C’s day job as he played jazz gigs around town in the evenings. As a gifted drummer, he could have had more money and success applying his talents in a rock band, but chose instead the “road less travelled” of small clubs and weddings of a jazz musician. Jazz is a much more complex art form than rock, with its poly rhythms and compound key signatures. But it also provides greater possibilities for artistic expression for those who can master improvisation. Despite being a hard worker with a strong mid-west work ethic, C didn’t belong in some dead end grocery store. But along with his brilliant gifts came an equally passionate temperament. His father had died of sudden MI when C was about 15, and I think his grief was manifested in anger and drug and alcohol abuse. During his lunch breaks he would toot a few lines of coke and by mid-afternoon when the highs had worn off could become the most abusive asshole you ever met. When his sister died, I wasn’t too sure how he would cope with the grief given that he was still partially dysfunctional from the loss of his father. Would he hit the booze and coke hard and let it destroy him?

    He took some time off to be with his family, and we didn’t have any contact for over a year. When he did return to his job (I had since quit), he had entered both AA and NA. He had quit smoking – pot and cigarettes -and was eating a healthy diet of fresh fruits and vegetables. No more bear claws and coffee to nurse a hang-over, or as he would jokingly call it “the breakfast of champions.” He also exercised regularly at the local swimming pool. Today, he is still clean and sober and as far as I can tell at peace with himself.

    I believe C made the conscious decision to completely turn his life around not just for his own sake. He chose life because that was the best way to honor the memory of his sister.

  19. I’m so sorry to read this Dr. Hanson. I try and read your stuff and watch the interviews (a lot which goes over my head, I admit) when I can, and always enjoy them. Particularly when I can catch something to do with the farm. Please accept my condolences, and prayers, hoping you can find solace in those around you and strength in the coming of another day.

  20. Thank you. Refugees from a home somewhere else. Indeed. You better than most anyone on these shores understands the Eastern knowing that we all do eventually migrate back home to awaken from this dream. Our pain is real. Our losses temporary. What doesn’t kill me, teaches me to get to the next level via love, before it does.

  21. Dr. Hanson: Your writings read like a stream of consciousness. I can picture you dictating them to an amanuensis verbatim, but I doubt that is real. Your writings constitute for me a sort of ministry/therapy of truth. This post especially strikes a chord in common with all our lives. Thank you for your continuing honesty.

  22. So sorry for your loss. Glad you have faith to console you. Nothing like death of a relation to put G-d in perspective. We humans are but care-takers of the bodies & the gift of life G-d gives us. The vicissitudes of life humble us…one day a king the next a pauper….that’s why we pray.
    (Another common philosophical expression “I think, there fore I am” is perhaps better expressed as “I am distressed, there for I am.”)

    The tragic/comedy of life is often we don’t realize how dependent we are on someone until they are gone & suffer regret for all that we left unsaid & done… yet, it sounds like you were a caring, devoted father, conveying your love to your daughter while she was still alive. May her memory be blessed.

  23. VDH:

    There are thousands of people all over the world that just love you and your family to pieces. Not just the rich and famous like Dennis Miller and Dick Cheney, but us plebeians in flyover country. We learn about your family’s personal tragedies and we are just sick.

    My secretary’s husband was diagnosed with brain and lung cancer this last week. My friend, mentor and professor, John Schlegel, S.J., was diagnosed with inoperable pancreatic cancer earlier this year.

    As good as American medicine is now, it is oftentimes not enough when needed. It gets better everyday and all sorts of breakthroughs are occurring right now for different cancers and orphan diseases. Weak tea indeed for many, but a huge effort to improve and conquer disease is ongoing.

    Love is a big, big deal and it is obvious that there is plenty of love in and for the Hanson family.

    All the Best,

  24. Mr.Hanson, I am so very sorry to hear of your losses. I don’t have any words that could lessen the anguish borne by you and your family; however, please know that your family will be in my prayers.

    Thank you for sharing something so deeply personal, and thank you, Mr. Hanson, for your humanity. It comes through all of your writing — transmitted by the printed words on the page to a deep place inside us — and especially so today.

  25. I religiously read your columns for the spot on political/historical perspectives and insights. The quality, quantity and depth of your work never ceases to amaze me. Today however is the first time tears came to my eyes as you shared your personal space and inner feelings with us. You are a special man and a national treasure. Thank you and God bless you and your family.

  26. The ministry of Joseph Goebbels is alive and well in a different form, the actor but changes costume. This explains why Mr Hanson’s good work is not more widely circulated, the nazi-youth must be shielded from Truth the liberator. Sisyphus of greek mythology, his torment of never-ending repetition is reflected well in modern culture—-indoctrinating the receptive to toil and live the uninspired life. The damage done by not realizing the limitation of the intellect, the mental field— regardless of fields size and intelligence. Awareness of the movement of the will, for self. Life, relationship as a testing ground——The Benediction of the incorruptible. “” How is a mind that’s enmeshed in the net of its own making to disentangle itself.””

  27. Googling “” how is a mind that’s enmeshed….”” It’s worth a look. Commentaries on living.

  28. I believe that losing your child is the most painful thing that can happen to you. Your sharing of your grief lets us experience this and empathize with you. May this help you get through the mourning you must and look to brighter days ahead.

  29. Sometimes you just have to believe when it makes no sense to do so and continue laying it down, brick by brick; that’s what I take from this exquisite reflection by VDH. So then, onward. Onward.

  30. You know you’re never alone my friend. He holds your daughter in His arms; in a blink the pain will be gone…a gift from the Fountain of all hope.

  31. Kathleen Zaker

    Dear VDH,

    I am saddened to hear of your suffering and pain. I am an admirerer of your clear thinking and have used some of your pieces for my government class in a Christian high school where I teach. Your clear, logical reasoning is an inspiration to me.

    I also have been racked by suffering in the past few years, especially after my beloved husband died of esphogeal cancer two years ago. I would highly recommend two books I read on suffering: 1) A Grace Disguised, How the Soul Grows Through Loss, by Gerald L. Sittser. The author, a professor of religion at Whitworth College, writes about what he learned after the loss of three of his family members in an automobile accident caused by a drunk driver. He lost his mother, his wife, and one of his daughters that day. The book is excellent and would be appropiate for anyone who believes in God. 2) Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering by Tim Keller. This book covers how different cultures and belief systems handle suffering (and how shallow secularism is in the face of suffering). He writes about why God allows suffering and the answer to it philosphically and emotionally. This book is more overtly Christian and draws from the Bible in its analysis.

    May God comfort you and teach you during your difficult journey.

  32. Winfield Sterling

    I was deeply moved by your story — and I am not moved easily. Unlike your daughter, my empath is about a four on a scale of 1 to 10. I hope that in the future the gods treat you with greater kindness. And, please stop riding your bike in the dark.

  33. maurice levie

    Dear Professor Hanson,
    To be able to have such perspective after only a few months your loss is something I haven’t been able to attain after 5 years. I take my hat off to you. My only solace is to recognize that these diseases will be cured one day, and maybe, just maybe sooner than my last day on earth.

    Thank you for this posting. I will print it and keep it close whenever the parental pains well up in the dark nights of the soul yet to come.


  34. S. Plankenberg

    Please accept my sincere regrets for your loss . I can only imagine what you and your family are going through.
    To the degree that it assuages the grief you are feeling now, give yourself credit for providing your daughter with what must have been a supportive family environment full of love and intellectual stimulation.

    S . Plankenbers

  35. Dr Hanson, I am so sorry for your loss. Reading your story brought me to tears. I hate AML. My daughter contracted it when she was 10 years old. She survived so I can not full understand the depth your loss. I asked my self the same questions that you did. My thoughts and prayers are with you and your family. May God bless and comfort you.

    By the way your uncle and name sake was a friend of my father (Clarence Elwood Erickson). He is still living and speaks highly of your uncle. They had a news paper route together in Kingsberg. Regards. Eric

  36. Dear Dr. Hanson,

    Thank you for sharing some of your personal sorrow with us, and for giving us insight into how you are coping with your grief and pain. All of your friends here can surely relate to your experiences to some degree. My biological father, with whom I had had a strained relationship – he had bailed on me when I was two – died on 3 August 1998 of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease. He was 55. I recently tuned fifty this March which is about the same age my father started having symptoms. ALS, like many other diseases such as cancer, is largely a black box. We have some idea as to the etiology, such as increased amounts of glutamate seem to be present in many ALS patients and the SOD1 gene mutation appears to cause about 10% of cases, but that is about it. There are very few answers of why me, or how could I have prevented this, which can make trying to find sense of what has happened so difficult. I just say to myself that the human body is an amazing, yet deeply complex machine, so I’ll probably never know.

    I’m very sorry for the loss of your daughter. We don’t have children, as my wife and I married later in life, but I’ve always wondered what it would have been like to have had a baby girl. I’ve even thought of a name for her: Circe, the mythological enchantress who fell in love with Odysseus. From the description you gave, your daughter must have been a bright, sensitive young woman and a well of human compassion. You must be very proud of her. May her light always shine on.

    I hope your granddaughter Lila has a bright and happy future. Remember, the human body and spirit are tremendously resilient. Whatever deficits she may have, and here’s hoping there will be none, can be mitigated by modern medical science and the support of a strong, loving family.

  37. Long time reader and admirer of your work, and have learned much from those writings. The only other time I was brought to tears by your writing was reading “The Land was Everything”.

    Being about the same vintage, I have not suffered the loss that you have , but other losses. I have always read this poem for comfort, and perhaps perspective on that final journey.

    I am standing on the sea shore,
    A ship sails in the morning breeze and starts for the ocean.
    She is an object of beauty and I stand watching her
    Till at last she fades on the horizon and someone at my side says:
    “She is gone.”

    Gone! Where?
    Gone from my sight – that is all.
    She is just as large in the masts, hull and spars as she was when I saw her
    And just as able to bear her load of living freight to its destination.
    The diminished size and total loss of sight is in me, not in her.

    And just at the moment when someone at my side says,
    “She is gone”,
    There are others who are watching her coming, and other voices take up a glad shout:
    “There she comes”
    – and that is dying: a horizon and just the limit of our sight.
    Lift us up, Oh Lord, that we may see further.

    Bishop Brent
    1862 – 1926

  38. God bless you sir. I shed tears for you and your family, rare for people I’ve never met, but you’ve taught me so much about the world and life through your columns.

  39. Dr. Hanson, thank you for opening your heart and crafting such a profound eulogy to your daughter Susannah.

  40. Thank you for your essay, “Pathei Mathos.” Selflessly, you did not mention your own serious injuries in an accident in the past year. The way in which you relate your own family’s tragic sufferings with such dignity and grace serves as a balm to soothe us in facing our own tragedies.

  41. It’s a little blurry seeing to write this as you have stirred an empathy I wish I did not possess. Peace on you, Victor.

  42. Scott McNamara

    Professor Hansen,

    I wish I had words that could help. I do not.

    But strangely you taught me where to look—Epictetus, Aurelius.

    Scott McNamara

  43. Barbara Martinet

    Dear Dr. Hanson, your stories and reflections have been a balm for the times. I am deeply sorry to hear of the loss of a beloved daughter, and, despite the sadness you must carry, nevertheless I congratulate you on the wonderful woman you were a father to.

    A lost daughter and a grandchild, little Lila,with a serious disorder, ah, the gods cast two too many thunderbolts at the Hanson family.

    My own father was abandoned when he was very young and I was 48 years old before it occurred to me that I never told him I loved him, probably because he never ever said such things to any of his family – was he too cautious to take the chance? Luckily I broke the ice and ended a phone call with “I love you, Dad” and quick as a wink he said “I love you too”.

    Bless you, Dr. Hanson.

  44. Such a sad and moving story, shared in a most dignified way. A reminder to try and turn to the lasting (eternal?) in these trying, trivializing times.

    Thank-you for writing this.

  45. Jack Friedman

    Dr. Hanson, an excellent and moving post. Gave me strength to deal with my Parkinson’s. Your postings and books have inspired me for the last 15 years or so. Good health to you, sir.

    ‘But where the danger IS,
    ‘Grows the saving power also.’

  46. I’ve read some of your writings–books and most of your posts sent to me by my son. Some are more erudite (possibly) but none more moving. Thank you.

  47. Mr. Hansen… I’ve been a big fan and inspired by your writings for years…

    I’m so sad to hear about the loss of your daughter..

    There’s nothing I can say, but thank you for sharing your life’s odyssey…because it’s had an impact on me as well, I’m sure, on a lot of your friends and admirers… of which I am one…

    All the best…

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