Remembering Jon Hanna one year after his passing

Shubhangi Karmakar remembers loving parent, husband, and tireless activist, Jon Hanna who passed away this day one year ago.

Close-up of Jon Hanna smiling

If there’s anywhere to learn the insights of how to live a long life, it’s Arranmore Island. Men and women from generations of global wars, now supporting each other in their twilight years through the peace times — wryly chuckling at anything from political upheaval to Coronavirus, in context of their shared loves, losses and experience. It was therefore highly unusual to find myself here to train, at a time of unprecedented losses to shake even such a close-knit community, but also to reflect on a year of losing someone deeply special to me. Someone who led us, supported us, educated us and delighted us in his irreverent, humorous cynicism of the everyday — Jon Hanna.

A hand drawn portrait of Jon Hanna

Yesterday, I went for a long, lonely walk. 12 kilometres during a rapidly approaching sunset, through the lakes of Arranmore around past its cliffs, down to the lighthouse and back. Newly on meds, and as the emergency doctor reminded me four times — “now you’re sure you know you really can’t drink with these?” — there was little else I could have done to commemorate him right.

I knew I couldn’t do it by halves, but I stopped so many times on the way there. ‘Nílim ach ag dul go dtí na lochanna’, at first. I let the spray cut my face and the cold walking skirts cut my frozen ankles.

‘Just to the top of the next hill’, then. And I looked out at the greying horizon, smashing the only white you could see against curling cliffs.

I definitely drew my line coming around those, buffeting me into the hills and dragging me way out to the edge — an invitation.

But that’s when I saw the lighthouse.

And I realised how far I’d go to follow it though it would only light a 10 minute radius, already an hour in and with an hour back without sun or moon to guide me.

To me, Jon was that lighthouse.

A group of three people with flags standing at a protest

The time we knew each other was spent hoarse from shouting, covered in a haze of vape and holding up a rainbow flag, not in joy but dogged persistence and anger, in the hope of seeing better things on Ireland’s grey horizon. But the days ’til we saw that sunrise again often went without a single glimmer of hope and lashings of abuse ringing in our ears — with only the glimpse of his long leather coat around the corner from Stephen’s Green or advice disguised in deeply cynical puns to guide us. He’d never shout down the winds or tame the crashing waves, but you’d look to him for the path to get you through it, just laughing quietly into that deafening noise.

We had a friendship of dread certainty, where talking about what we’d do when one of us wasn’t there was as easy as breathing, and offering consolation was simpler than celebrating the easy days because the fear of facing the next jumpscare hardship alone overwhelmed us. But in between all of that fear, not just of never winning but losing more than we had to spare for so many, I also had the hope and strength we all learned from his love.

Jon Hanna with protesters holding a bisexual flag

For some of us it was seeing him the first time not at a protest but at a parade — wrangling and cooing to a little slobbery baby who couldn’t be anything but his whole world.

For some of us, it was him talking animatedly about his religion and his writing, something hard not to take guidance from for even the most obstinate disbeliever when at the mercy of chaos and the elements in the dark.

For some of us it was his sense of humour, often precisely as proportionally apt to the context as it would be inappropriately phrased for the situation.

For me particularly, it was how he expressed love in the very mundanities of everyday life. How he ran me to the local shops delaying dinner by a good half hour, to buy the right kind of pasta to make his son happy. (A kind — even though I’d never considered before — I will at least toy with buying every time I pass the right kind of shop.)

Jon Hanna taking a selfie in the mirror while holding a glass of shampain

The gestures of simple conversation and the delicate touches of passion that littered all around him. The look in his eye just talking about his wife, badges on his bag or the books on his shelves that were single simple things but fed hours of conversation for the curious. His strength to be nothing but himself, and to be every bit of himself every day. His unfailing prudence and complete irreverence. How he could see right through your excuses across a dark screen and 2% battery even when you weren’t the target of a piercing look.

I remember Jon Hanna at his wake, looking so content save for being too calm — a placid look for better or worse he never wore in my countenance but wore so well I could swear he was still breathing — and I remember the sheer rage I felt in the same spirit of being honest with my emotions that day. The seething sadness at the last conversation we had, far too timid and far too tired for us. Offering shoulders to quietly cry on whenever we needed them when any day before and since I’d give everything to turn up to that offer and wryly laugh at our troubles over a glass.

I carried that anger through for so long. Through the funerals and the phone calls and then the real grief, slowly creeping as it scattered across the country and the world, into the tiny grim realities of our everyday lives in the last year. The only way to temper the emptiness in my life against the fact that Jon Hanna really really was gone. Convincing myself my anger was for somebody else, for those who knew him better still and still need him more. It definitely wasn’t that my shoulder was wet from someone else’s tears, from other friends’ steadying hands and guidance now he was gone.

Yesterday was the first time, walking away from the lighthouse with nothing to guide me back to safety where there had been light and the passion for him, I finally felt the year’s anger seeping away. My terrified tears mixed in with the unforgiving rain, and I started to accept that what was still moving me wasn’t anger but just feeling lost, in so many more ways than one.

I started making peace with the fact Jon Hanna never promised to be the biggest, or brightest, or most enduring light in many of our lives. Yet I couldn’t shake that I’m irrevocably changed for having seen his light at all. When I’m afraid or lost, he’s still beckoning over so many hills and plumbed depths of joys and griefs, as easy as his half-waved vape over a sea of heads on South William Street.

There’s no moving on from losing Jon Hanna, not with everyone I’ve met and loved because of his loss. But moving further away from his lighthouse into the days and years of a howling dark, I’m still marching the one dogged step after another into uncertainty as he inspired me to start. Maybe even towards the “good serotonin days” he’d describe sometimes, but I’d be lying to say they weren’t always a little less bright as he fades day by day from the view.

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