By Judith Munson —
Battling stage four breast cancer is not a laughing matter for most, but local historian, mother and grandmother, Susan Hessel, cherishes her ability to laugh at it and other adversities in her life.
“My wild sense of humor tells me cancer is too serious not to laugh,” says Hessel.
This is her second bout with breast cancer. It returned in 2016 after going into remission following its first appearance in 2009. Hessel is not letting it get the better of her, despite fatigue and knowing she’ll be living with cancer the rest of her life. “I’m really happy about how I’m doing right now,” she says.
Hessel’s good nature was severely tested with the loss of her first child, Matt, to leukemia at the age of 8. She and her husband, Richard Mial, found celebrating Matt’s life was the best way to deal with their grief.
“Matt was a great kid,” she begins. “He was writing all the time. He wrote a collection of short stories called ‘The Great Planet Swap and Other Stories’ and a novel called ‘X-Man,’ so we created a writing contest in the local school district in his name. We give out prizes to the winners on his birthday.
“It’s a way to remember him and put that energy into something positive. So once a year we’re Matt’s parents again, and the kids think it’s really cool learning about Matt’s writing. It’s great to find a way to inspire others in the name of your child.”
Writing (and the love of words) is truly a family affair. Matt’s little sister, Maggie, is now a director of communications for a school district in Kansas. One year after Matt’s death, their son Michael was born. He now holds a doctorate in comparative literature and is doing test prep tutoring. He’s also a freelance writer himself. Richard is the former opinion page editor for the La Crosse Tribune.
For Hessel, the writing life began as a newspaper reporter for the Wisconsin State Journal and La Crosse Tribune. She transitioned to a freelance career with her business, Write Now. After publishing a history of Gundersen Clinic, she fell in love with writing about community, family and personal histories, so she started Lessons from Life, a personal history writing service.
In 2008, Hessel co-wrote “A History of La Crosse, Wisconsin in the Twentieth Century—Reinventing La Crosse Again and Again” with Gayda Hollnagel. Other titles include “Where’s Evelyn?” This book covers the 1953 kidnapping of a babysitter in La Crosse that captured national media attention. The case has never been solved.
But writing about the lives of everyday people is just as important to Hessel. “It was my passion to help people and families tell their story,” she says. Getting well is Hessel’s job right now, but she hopes to return to her personal history work sometime.
Another passion for Hessel is standing up for the rights of others, which helped earn her the YWCA Tribute to Outstanding Women “Trailblazer” award last year.
The best job around, though, is raising a family, she says. “What I most enjoy about being a parent is you learn so much about yourself. Even as a grandmother I keep learning. Your children give you a second childhood, and grandchildren give you a third one.”
Hessel’s advice for new moms is to admit your mistakes to your kids and laugh at yourself. “If you can laugh at yourself, kids learn to laugh at themselves, and it will help them endure tough times.”
This endurance and humor have carried Hessel through cancer and child loss. “In the unlucky category of life, I’m very lucky. I mean that about Matt and my cancer. I’ve discovered great friends and family—people who care about me a lot. And for that, I’m very grateful. If we focus on what we’re grateful for, we can handle anything.”