DANIEL ISLAND—Dan and Beth Brannan share a life filled with unexpected forms of grace.
One of those moments came when the Brannans were able to join about 350 strangers on the 2016 International Order of Malta Pilgrimage to Lourdes, where they visited a sacred shrine in the foothills of the Pyrénées in southwest France.
Dan and Beth accompanied their 21-year-old eldest twin son, Daniel, who was born with Down Syndrome, to immerse themselves in waters where Mary appeared to a 14-year-old girl in 1858.
“I have to be honest, I’ve always been lukewarm on my faith. My doubt has caused me to do a lot of reading over the years. I’m not deeply conversant but I’ve read enough to know that if you’re around people with great faith, their faith can rub off on you,” said Dan, who converted to Catholicism 30 years ago when he married Beth.
Dan, a 68-year-old former airline pilot, was diagnosed in 2012 with prostate cancer, which was attributed to his exposure to Agent Orange during two tours of combat duty in the Vietnam War. He was treated successfully with radiation and hormone therapy.
Their son, Daniel, was diagnosed last July with testicular cancer, which spread to his lymph nodes, lungs, and liver. He underwent surgery and months of chemotherapy. Last week, for the third time since his initial diagnosis, Daniel had a procedure to replace a ureteral stent that allows fluid to pass from kidney to bladder. The family awaits a decision from oncologists at the Medical University of South Carolina about how to proceed with Daniel’s case.
“I never saw cancer coming. It never crossed my radar. I never thought I would have a special needs son,” Dan said, reflecting on the mysteries of life and faith.
“We enjoyed material success. I have a great family. I had seen the world, literally,” he said.
Late in his career, Dan lost his senior corporate position, leaving the family vulnerable.
“We lost it all. I had this vision that Dan Brannan can change the world because Dan Brannan knew what was wrong and I could fix it,” he said. “I no longer want to change the world. I want to have an impact on my little slice of it. I realized that I needed to change me.”
Dan began writing as a way to process life events. His posts on social media started to reach more people. A college friend texted Beth after reading one of Dan’s posts about Daniel. It had been 37 years since they had last connected. This friend was part of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, an ancient Catholic organization with modern-day lay members dedicated to caring for the sick and people in need worldwide.
The Brannans filled out an application for a pilgrimage to Lourdes and went through a lengthy selection process. At first, they were not selected and were placed on a wait list. Then in April, they were notified to pack their bags and drive to Baltimore to join the Order of Malta American Association members for a chartered flight to Lourdes.
Dan and Daniel were “malades” due to their cancer diagnoses while Beth was their companion. Dan said their flight carried about 40 malades traveling with companions. Others in their group were volunteers, Knights and Dames of the Order of Malta.
“Literally from the time we stepped into the airport, you felt this camaraderie and love,” Beth said, describing the emotion of their entire trip April 27 to May 3. “We went to Mass in a different place every day. When you’re there, it’s so incredible.”
Dan and Beth described how members of the order took meticulous care of them. They met new volunteers and pilgrims each day. They shared meals and Mass with priests, nuns, cardinals and archbishops. In the grotto and the different basilicas, there were people with varying needs, seen and unseen. Pilgrims filled open and intimate spaces. All shared an unspoken connection.
By journey’s end, they had formed new friendships and new plans inspired by their experience.
“It does affect you,” Beth said. “It makes you believe all the more. It was just amazing. I believe being there, in grace, that was our miracle. Some things are just hard to explain.”
A Call for Prayers
Each year, nearly six million visitors overwhelm this small town of about 17,000 year-round residents along the Gave du Pau River in southwestern France. They walk down narrow cobblestone streets and fill the plaza outside the lower and upper basilicas. Before leaving for Lourdes, Dan posted on social media an open call for prayers. He received 76 requests.
“I read every single one. I said their name, what they were asking, and I prayed for them — one at a time,” Dan said.
After returning home, Dan sent a followup note to each person who requested a prayer. He included a picture from Lourdes and a little vial of holy water collected from the sacred grotto. A few steps beyond the shrine are 17 marble baths filled with holy water. Dan described how Daniel sputtered and noisily resisted being lowered into the cold marble baths.
“I didn’t come here to be physically healed. I came here because I wanted to be among people who believed,” Dan said. “I wanted to hear other people’s stories. So, my take away is that it affirmed for me something that I already held closely to my heart — how much we need each other.”
The pilgrimage with Daniel was a renewal of faith, especially for Beth, who calls her special needs son a “Like” magnet on social media.
“He [Daniel] is the light of our family. He is a gift,” Beth said, adding her admiration of Dan’s devotion to all their children, particularly for Daniel.
“He has a soul connection with Daniel. They are like two peas in a pod. It’s amazing to watch. When Daniel was diagnosed, it was doubly hard on him [Dan],” Beth said. “I cannot imagine a better father for Daniel than Dan. He’s been the most amazing father I could ever wish for. He would take away his pain if he could. He’s been a lot more emotional about it than I.”
“There were times in the last five years where I thought, ‘That’s it. I’m done. I can’t deal with this,” Beth said. “I handed things over to God. Things always seem to work. Of course when you’re in the throes of it you wonder how.”
Dan, who is now an author and inspirational speaker, lives on Daniel Island with his wife, Beth. They can be reached at www.danbrannan.com.
Rhesa Versola | Special to The Catholic Miscellany