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Teaching lessons until the very end

Kevin Gosnell with two sisters of the Daughters of Mary, Mother of Healing Love. Gulnara Niaz via Gosnell Family/Handout

HANOVER — In his last moments of life — surrounded by the family he treasured and the friends who treasured him — Kevin Gosnell issued a soft and poignant final request.

“Have faith in God, and don’t be sad,’’ he said. “God has a plan and I’m going to find out what it is today.’’

And with that, Kevin Gosnell’s 15-month battle with an infinitely cruel neurodegenerative affliction known as Lou Gehrig’s disease was over.

“It’s the most profound thing I’ve ever heard a dying person say,’’ the Rev. Christopher J. Hickey told me. “It was beautiful.’’

Kevin Gosnell was just 48 when he died last week.


Father Hickey celebrated his funeral Mass here on Friday at St. Mary of the Sacred Heart Church, packed with family and friends, colleagues and neighbors who had been inspired by the arc of his life and his courageous and groundbreaking search for a cure for a disease — amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, ALS — which has none.

Kevin Gosnell's sons, (from left) Scott, Jake, and Joey, took care of the father who had taken care of them. Gosnell Family/Handout

“In the end, it was horrible to watch,’’ his wife, Kathy, said as we sat with her three sons around the granite island in their kitchen. “No one should have to live like that. You can’t eat. You can’t drink. You can’t swallow. As much as we wanted to hold on, we know this was torture for him.’’

It was torture for his family, too, made all the worse because it has robbed them of a husband and father who built a strong family and a solid career, and left a legacy worthy of a Hollywood movie-maker.

After graduating from Hanover High School, Gosnell met the woman who would become his wife on his first day at Framingham State in 1986. Kevin captained the Framingham State football team, earned a degree in business, and started a company, T&K Asphalt Services, with a single truck, an enterprise that today is worth $25 million.


At the center of their lives were their boys — 19-year-old Scott and twin 17-year-olds, Jake and Joey — who gave their dad a good-natured ribbing on Columbus Day weekend in 2014, when, while on a getaway in North Conway, N.H., he felt a pain in his calf. Uncharacteristically, he couldn’t keep up.

Jake put two and two together early on. “All of a sudden, he just couldn’t run,’’ the older twin said. “I knew something was wrong. It was such a scary feeling. I started crying because I knew. But I didn’t tell him that.’’

Doctors confirmed his ALS diagnosis in May 2015. Kevin and Kathy let Scott enjoy his senior prom and high school graduation before convening a solemn family meeting around the kitchen table.

“I wanted to get a punching bag and put ALS on it,’’ Joey said.

What followed was the lesson of a lifetime, taught by a man who literally wrote a book about life’s lessons.

“Be grateful for the people who show up in your life every day because they don’t have to,’’ he wrote. “We were put on this earth to make it better than when we arrived. How are you making it better?’’

The boys could count on one hand the number of times they looked into the grandstands at one of their sporting events and didn’t see their dad there. And now, they would be there for him.


“It was a blessing that he didn’t lose his voice through the whole thing,’’ Scott said.

And with that voice he continued to teach. Thank people for their presence, he said. I love you so much, he told them every day. You’re awesome.

“He’d always have good advice for us in every situation even if we messed up,’’ Scott recalled. “He’d always say: How are we going to learn from this?’’

I last spoke with Kevin in March, when he told me he was by then fully dependent on a breathing machine.

“Any time he’d swallow, it pretty much would go into his lungs and for 10 minutes he couldn’t breathe,’’ Scott said.

“He was suffering,’’ Kathy said. “And that Saturday, I said, ‘I can’t watch you suffer anymore.’ And he said. ‘You’re right.’ ”

Joey nodded at his mother. “I think he wanted to hear those words, too,’’ he said. “I think he was just holding on.’’

Jake and Joey spent some special final moments with their dad. Jake said: “It was just me and Joey in there and he said, ‘I’m so relieved,’ and he started crying. He couldn’t do it anymore. He’d been so strong for so long. At this point, you can’t be strong anymore. You just have to call it a day.’’

What followed were prayers and hugs. Soft touches and special songs. And, when the end came, Kathy found beauty in that, too.

“We took such good care of him,’’ Kathy Gosnell said. “My wish for him was always a peaceful death, and that’s all I wanted. There were so many ways it could have gone wrong. He was dependent 100 percent on a breathing machine. After he passed away, I felt strength.’’


Part of Kevin Gosnell’s legacy is ALS ONE, which he founded to help find a cure for the disease that killed him. So far, it has raised more than $5 million. And leading ALS researchers like Dr. Robert H. Brown Jr. at UMass Medical School in Worcester credit Gosnell with helping to forge important medical partnerships.

“The likelihood of a meaningful therapy in five to 10 years is very high,’’ Brown said.

That’s something of which his family is proud. The team he put in place will carry on his mission.

The family that survives him will remember the husband and father in the years before ALS shadowed their lives.

“I’d rather have 17 years with him than 80 years with a regular father,’’ Joey said.

At his funeral, the congregation heard an ancient passage from the Old Testament book of Wisdom.

“The just man, though he die early, shall be at rest. For the age that is honorable comes not with the passing of time, nor can it be measured in terms of years.’’

In his homily, Father Hickey paid tribute to a man he came to know as a “brother from another mother.’’

“He bore with great strength and dignity the illness that stripped him of both,’’ the pastor told his congregation. “His courage and his strength inspired me.’’


Before Kevin’s body was carried to the hearse for a funeral procession led by a black-and-white T&K company truck, Father Hickey blessed him one last time. With incense and prayer, he beseeched the heavens, asking that angels lead this special man into paradise.

In that packed church, those who loved him most and knew him best were certain that Kevin Gosnell was already there.

Thomas Farragher is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at thomas.farragher@globe.com.