I’ve written before about how I grew up in a family of 17 children. I have two older brothers and two older sisters. My oldest sister’s name is Mary Kathryn “Mary Kay” Hersemann. Mary Kay and her husband, Joel, raised three children: Angelica, Joseph “Joey,” and Alanna. On Sunday, December 1, 2019, Joey was killed as a result of an automobile accident. He left behind his wife, Katie, and three young children, Layla, Madison, and Sam. Joey was 38 years old when he died.
One of the worst nightmares a parent can be forced to endure is the sudden death of a child.
The visitation for Joey took place inside the gym at Brimfield High School. There were more than 1,200 people who showed up to pay their respects to his family. Many of them had to wait more than three hours before they could extend their sympathy to his family members.
It is highly unusual for that many people to show up for the visitation of a 38-year-old man, but it didn’t surprise anyone who knew Joey. He was a larger-than-life character who loved to stir the pot and tease people. Whenever he walked into a room, you immediately felt his energy and enthusiasm.
Joey was a hunter and fisherman who loved the outdoors. He was a man who was loved by both men and women. The men loved him because he was a rugged, tough, smart, quick-witted, honest, adventurous, fun-loving man who showed genuine interest in them. The women loved him because he was a kind, smart, quick-witted, compassionate, forgiving, adventurous, fun-loving man who showed genuine interest in them.
Thirty or 40 years from now, everyone who was fortunate enough to get to know Joey on a personal level will still long for his presence — if only for the experience of one more conversation with him.
At the end of Joey’s funeral Mass at Saint Mark’s Catholic Church in Peoria, my youngest sister, Liz, stood up before the congregation and read a eulogy that had been written by Mary Kay.
A few days after the funeral, I called Mary Kay and asked her whether she would mind if I published her eulogy in my weekly Adoration Letter. I told her that I wanted to share her perspective as a faith-filled Catholic mother who had lost her son. She responded to my request by saying, “If you think it will be beneficial to other people — either now or in the future — please feel free to publish it.”
The following is what Mary Kay said in her eulogy about the loss of her son. Please say a prayer for her and her family.
When Joseph was born, he looked Lebanese, hairy, and beautiful to me, even though he looked like a little old man for a while. I considered him to be a gift and a blessing from the first moment I looked into his deep blue eyes.
He always brought me little bits of nature, especially flowers. His sense of humor and quick wit were unrivaled. We cultivated our sense of humor together. He was honest. He was never afraid to say what was on his mind. He lived life big, without fear of anything. He lived every moment like he was indestructible. To know him was to love him deeply. A lot of people here will tell you that they lost their best friend. That’s what has happened to me. We had a special love and respect for each other. He was NEVER mad at me. He was my honey boy!
Joseph started in my Montessori school when he was just a few months old. When he was two years old, he was diagnosed with idiopathic thrombocytopenia, which is a blood disorder. It involved weekly blood draws, steroids, and caution. We had to protect him from falls and bumps because he would bruise so easily and his blood wouldn’t clot properly.
He loved to run, climb, wrestle, and throw his body around. There were some restrictions that caused him to be frustrated, and I had discussions with him about the importance of choosing happiness, even when there were reasons to be unhappy. I told him that he could be happy every day, but he had to choose to be happy. I just planted the seed, and he listened. He soaked it all in, and he made happiness his job and mission. He also made it fun for everyone around him.
Even as a boy, Joseph was creative, resilient, and mischievous, and we were the lucky recipients of those traits because he pulled us along on all his exciting adventures.
School was a big deal for him. He loved it. He was very social. He had an excellent work ethic from the very beginning, but he often got into trouble for talking too much. He remembered everything he ever read or heard. When he was just five, he took a knife to kindergarten without my knowledge. In his mind, it was perfect for show-and-tell. He always loved being outside. He loved animals, flowers, trees, and, well … so many things.
Because we had so many rules and high expectations, everyone in our house agreed that it was the unfair house.
Joseph and I had hundreds of little talks about all kinds of things. He was extremely curious. We often talked about God and His Angels, and Joseph was fascinated. I told him and his sisters how there were Angels all around us, all the time. We also talked about how we could call on them for help for anything, and they would be there for us.
Joseph had the potential of being really bad or really good. He was involved in a lot of naughty shenanigans. But he ultimately chose to be good. He also chose love, happiness, and hopefulness. And we all profited from those choices.
I could go on and on.
Before he built his house, he brought the blueprints over to my house and showed me the room that would be mine someday. He and his wife, Katie, had already talked about it and agreed that they would take me in. That’s real love … because I’m probably not that easy to live with.
He was so proud of his family, and he had his next 30 years mapped out.
We often talked about books. Our last telephone conversation was about all the books that we were going to read, because he had a list of the new releases of our favorite authors. In fact, he brought me a new book the day before he died, at our Thanksgiving party. He had just finished it in two sittings and teased me about finishing it that night.
When I got the call to go to the hospital, I rushed out my front door voicing my request to God to send His Angels to Joseph and Katie. The minutes that followed were excruciatingly slow and painful as I sat in the emergency room, praying and waiting for some information. At that time, I was sitting with Katie’s parents, and we didn’t know what to say or do. We were worried and anxious about what was going on with Joseph and Katie.
Suddenly, this powerful feeling came over me. I felt a stillness and peace flow through me. It was an assurance that the Angels were taking care of him.
I want to tell you about the words that came to my mind as the minutes crawled by. They came from the Lebanese poet, prophet, and philosopher Kahlil Gibran.
Your children are not your children. They are the sons and daughters of Life’s longing for itself. They come through you but not from you, and though they are with you, they belong not to you.
You may give them your love but not your thoughts, for they have their own thoughts. You may house their bodies but not their soul, for their souls dwell in the house of tomorrow, which you cannot visit, not even in your dreams.
You may strive to be like them, but seek not to make them like you. For life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday.
I consciously chose an Angel theme to guide us in the selection of the music for Joseph’s funeral Mass. It was important to pursue this theme because of the overwhelming feeling that I’ve had all week. I firmly believe that the Angels were all around him when he took his final breath. I don’t know anyone else who could leave this world with the void that he left.
Today my family has to repeat it. We live in the unfair house.
People have remarked that I have shown great strength through this tragedy. But in all honesty, the credit goes to my son because I feel his continuous presence and guidance in this time of great sorrow.