Larry LaRue

Larry LaRue: ‘Tacoma Boy’ with Lou Gehrig’s disease goes out on his own terms, pranking till the end

When they moved in together 30 years ago, Ida was a twice-divorced mother of three, and Joe Honan didn’t care. He was in love and would be for the rest of his life.

“Everyone loved Joe,” Ida said. “He was funny, sweet, always laughing.”

He had been all his life.

“I met Joe when we were at Bellarmine Prep 44 years ago,” friend Mark McDonald said. “If you can think of being a teenager with Robin Williams, that’s what it was like. Joe was always ‘on,’ always adventurous.

“He never changed. Joe was a drama student at the University of Washington, but he was always onstage, always entertaining you.”

After they married in 1987, Joe and Ida added three more children to their brood: twin daughters Brittany and Stephanie, and son Miles.

Joe went to work at Boeing, and the family bounced from homes in Tacoma to one in Seattle and, finally, Auburn.

“Dad loved to prank us,” Brittany said. “Growing up, we’d answer the telephone and it would be him using a strange voice or accent. It got to the point where if a real salesman called, we wouldn’t believe he wasn’t Dad.”

There were beachcombing trips, dance lessons, family vacations.

And then, late in 2004, Joe Honan had trouble handling chopsticks at a dim sum restaurant.

“We thought it was a pinched nerve, maybe carpal tunnel,” Ida said. “He was in great shape, healthy and active. Our family doctor sent him to a neurologist, and the diagnosis came just before Joe turned 50.”

It was amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

“Joe took it bravely,” Ida said. “I didn’t. I wanted anything but ALS. Anything else, you can fight, but ALS is a death sentence.”

The doctor told Joe he had 24 to 36 months to live, and that during those months he would lose all muscle control of his body.

“His hands went first, then his arms,” Ida said. “He started falling and couldn’t get his arms up to catch himself, so he’d just go down face first. One night our son Miles found Joe out on the front path. He’d fallen and couldn’t use his arms to reach his cellphone.”

Early in 2006, Joe was in a wheelchair and began losing his voice.

“The last thing he said to me was ‘I love you,’ ” Ida said.

They brought a computer that helped him communicate. It tracked from letter to letter on the keyboard as he turned his head slightly.

Then Joe lost the ability to move his head.

“We got an eye tracker that let him look at a letter without moving his head,” Ida said. “It worked, but it was slow. He had to be patient.”

As his body deteriorated, friends and some family members stopped visiting. But McDonald and many others kept coming.

“Even as ALS took his ability to walk, stand and talk, Joe was still a funny guy,” McDonald said. “He blew everyone away with his attitude.”

Daughter Brittany knew one of her father’s motivations.

“His mission was to outlive his doctors,” she said.

Year after year, Joe Honan stayed alive as his body failed. In 2011, a burst appendix sent him to the hospital. Doctors told Ida he wouldn’t be coming home.

But he did. And when he did, he used that eye-driven computer to write an autobiography – “Tacoma Boy: The Life, Times and ALS Journey of Joe Honan.” It remains available on Amazon.com.

That strength, that life force, came at a cost. Ida saw Joe’s occasional bouts with depression.

“Twice over the years, Joe told me he was ready to go to heaven, and we got him to change his mind,” Ida said.

Last February, Joe told his wife he’d come to a decision. He was ready to stop the machinery that kept him alive.

“He was in a lot of pain, and the only medication that stopped it left him with double vision, which meant he couldn’t use the computer to communicate,” Ida said. “He wouldn’t take it.”

Brittany talked to her father about his decision.

“He wanted to walk and talk again, he wanted to eat a cheeseburger again,” Brittany said. “He wasn’t going to change his mind. He wasn’t going to get better, he was only getting worse.”

He picked a date – July 18.

“Joe said he wanted to feel the sun on his face again, wanted to see fireworks one more time,” Ida said.

As friends were told the end was near, they’d come by to say farewell.

“I’d watch them sobbing on the front porch, but they came,” Ida said.

In the final days, Joe wrote letters to each of his six children, laboriously “typing” with his eyes. The last letter, to Ida, wasn’t finished until the morning of July 18.

Two medical professionals from a Seattle hospice came to the Honan home, where family and friends gathered. A little after 4 p.m., the family retired to a room in the back of the house with the doctor and nurse and Joe.

There, as Joe had requested months earlier, his ventilator was turned down and he went to sleep with Ida holding his hand.

A little after 5 p.m., without pain, Joe Honan died the way he wanted.

He was 59.

“To the last minute, I tried to talk him out of it,” Ida said. “In his letter, he told me how much he loved me and why, and he said he’d be our guardian angel.”

Brittany’s letter told her how beautiful she was and said that she was the one he would miss most, after Ida.

“Of course, we all shared our notes and discovered he’d said that one line to each of us,” Brittany said. “Dad pranked us one last time.”

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