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Widow and young mother of twins walks to receive her late husband's degree at BYU

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MINNEAPOLIS — After months of sorrow and sadness, there is light ahead for a young Minnesota family. A widow at 29, Jennifer Stacey Hanks, who has been combatting a seemingly unbearable journey as single mother of identical twin boys, walked the stage at Brigham Young University’s graduation Friday.

Hanks accepted an honorary diploma for her late husband, two weeks after celebrating their babies’ first birthday.

Justin Harvard Hanks was diagnosed with cancer shortly after he and Jennifer Hanks got married, then he passed away on July 7 after enduring the disease for five years.

Justin Hanks was somehow able to live long enough to meet their newborn sons, Marshal Rulon and Everett Mitchell Hanks. As a BYU student majoring in neuroscience, Justin Hanks worked to provide for his family while attending college and undergoing extensive health challenges.

Jennifer Hanks spoke candidly about their journey together in her blog, Coco’s Caravan, with hope that their experiences will provide comfort to others who may face similar trials.

“I don’t want his life to have been in vain,” she said.

Their love story

Growing up near each other in Fort Collins, Colorado, the Hanks’ relationship can be summarized by many years of the two going back and forth in their teens liking each other, but the timing was rarely in sync.

While attending Brigham Young University, Justin Hanks was ready to concede on his years-long crush with Jennifer Stacey, a BYU-Idaho student who lived four hours north of him in Rexburg, Idaho.

“No, don’t give up,” she encouraged him. “Go back to school (at BYU) and date, but don’t give up on me completely,” Jennifer told Justin. “Then he did, and I started getting jealous!” she explained.

“What was I thinking?“ Jennifer Hanks asked herself. “I would drive down from Idaho to go to the football games and he would kind of ignore me. Seeing him with all these girls, I was like, ‘What the heck?’”

The stars eventually aligned after many significant life events. Justin and Jennifer, both members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, volunteered as full-time missionaries. Justin Hanks served for two years in the Germany Hamburg Mission from July 2008 until July 2010, and Jennifer served from February 2011 to July 2012 in the New York Utica Mission.

Jennifer graduated with a teaching degree and the couple got married on May 24, 2013, in the Denver Colorado LDS temple.

From newlyweds to cancer

Two and a half months after their wedding, a tumor was found in Justin Hanks’ chest in August 2013, even though it was testicular cancer.

“It was really weird that it was in his chest. He was complaining of chest pain,” Jennifer Hanks said. “He was saying that it hurt and it got to the point where he couldn’t laugh because it hurt so badly from sharp pain in his chest. He decided to go get an X-ray.”

Doctors found the cancer and told Justin Hanks to get a CT scan.

Jennifer Hanks’ father, Rulon Stacey, a health care executive, knew how to help with the process.

“It was amazing because within a week, Justin was starting chemo,” Jennifer Hanks said. “We moved back home from Provo because my dad had a job in Denver at a new health system with really good doctors and my dad could oversee everything.”

Justin and Jennifer Hanks packed their belongings, put it all in storage and returned to home in Colorado where both sets of their parents lived.

Living with cancer

As newlyweds, the Hanks were not considering planning for a baby yet, but the diagnosis nudged a consultation with a fertility doctor for future prospects. After dealing with chemo and other treatments off and on for a few years, the couple’s lives eventually felt stable enough to pursue planning their family.

“Whether he was cancer free or not, we were willing to take that risk. We definitely did a lot of praying,” Jennifer Hanks said. “In the scriptures, it talks about how faith is an action word and faith precedes miracles. We were going to have faith and take action and have kids,” she conveyed. Jennifer Hanks felt that if Justin Hanks did not survive, a child or children would give her a reason to live and continue forward.

They took a chance at in vitro fertilization. Miraculously, the sole egg that was implanted, split into two — and news of twins surprised the couple and their loved ones.

Justin Hanks’ health made a sudden decline less than two months before the babies were born, yet he was determined to be present for their arrival.

When the cancer patient comforts others

Aware of his wife’s anxiety, Justin Hanks showed strength throughout the journey. Jennifer Hanks explained, “It was weird. Justin was like this through the whole cancer. It was interesting how he ended up comforting everyone else. I remember his mom saying, ‘I just need to be around him,’ because when we weren’t, we were just nervous and scared. Then when we were with him, it brought this calm and peace — which is sad.”

“We should have been the ones comforting him,” Jennifer Hanks continued, “but he had this gift of being so calm, even until the very end, giving off this radiant feeling that everything was going to be ok. It was really amazing.”

Justin Hanks spent the last two months of his life on earth as a father, assisting with the newborns as much as his body was capable.

Everett and Marshal turn 1

Jennifer Hanks’ two sons provide her with sunshine and laughter as well as an ever growing in popularity, once-a-month photo op, where she creatively captures their cuteness in pictures.

The toddlers enjoyed white cake with baby blue buttercream frosting for their 1-year-old smash cake birthday celebration. Like their dad, the Hanks twins appear to be budding foodies.

Justin Hanks loved to cook, according to his wife and mother. Justin Hanks’ specialty was his German braided bread. Jennifer Hanks said, “He would make it for people all the time. He loved making pizza and a special cheesy sauce.”

Another one of his specialties was a potato burrito, recreated from the restaurant, Big City Burrito, in Fort Collins, Colorado, which his college roommates loved.

Lynette Hanks, Justin’s mother, recently reached for an old cookbook, a compilation of recipes from the LDS Parkwood Ward, as she serendipitously flipped it open to a hand-written pizza dough recipe that her son had jotted down several years ago. Lynette Hanks described that it felt as though the recipe had been preserved for her to discover right now.

In the meantime, Jennifer Hanks will be on the lookout for her late husband’s famous braided German bread recipe, written in German, and will share it with the rest of us, and continue blogging as a therapeutic outlet to remember and honor her beloved husband, the new BYU graduate.

Kelly J. Larson is a journalist and food fanatic with a sweet tooth who writes at http://kellyskitchencreation.com.