Grandpa Joe's prayers come full circle
Friday, April 18, 2014 12:21 PM
A certain magic surrounds the name "Grandpa Joe" for anyone who has read Roald Dahl's classic children's book "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or who has seen one of the Willy Wonka movies inspired by it. In that story, a young boy named Charlie unwraps a candy bar to find one of the prized golden tickets, enabling the winner to tour the magical and mysterious chocolate factory. His Grandpa Joe, a sprightly old fellow, springs out of bed, dances a happy jig and accompanies Charlie on a wondrous adventure.
My family's Grandpa Joe - Joseph MacLeod - died on Holy Thursday, April 17, at the age of 93. A true character in his own right, my wife Carol's father had accompanied our family on a wonderful adventure starting 12 years ago, when he and his wife, Grandma Marge, bought a home with us in Germantown, Md. From that point on, Carol and I and our children Joe, Anna and later Matt got to grow up together as a family inspired by the example of Grandpa Joe and Grandma Marge, the Holy Family who lived downstairs and shared our home.
Our upstairs/downstairs dynamic proved to be a great blessing for us all. Our kids learned from their grandparents' example, as they saw two spirited elderly people whose lives revolved around their faith, and their love for God, each other, and their family and friends. Grandma and Grandpa in turn were provided with free and daily entertainment, from the sight of sledding pratfalls outside their window, to a little boy climbing where he wasn't supposed to, to Easter egg hunts in our yard and the frantic unwrapping of Christmas presents in our family room. Often Marge's jolly laugh provided the soundtrack for our kids' antics.
Grandpa Joe served as our home's unofficial plant manager and Mr. Fix-it. As a boy growing up on a farm in Massachusetts, he took apart and put together watches and radios. Later, the Army put Joe's mechanical skills to good use during World War II, as he and the soldiers in his crew outfitted tanks with radios at the Battle of the Bulge. One Christmas season a few years ago while Grandpa Joe and Carol were stringing Christmas lights on our home's front porch, he said casually, "This kinda reminds me of when we did the wiring for the sound system at the Nuremberg Trials."
Typical of that "Greatest Generation," Grandpa Joe didn't brag about his wartime service. He and his fellow troops had a job to do, and did it, and after serving their country, they came home. While studying chemistry on the GI Bill, Joe MacLeod had the great good fortune of meeting a pretty nursing student named Marjorie, and their happy marriage lasted nearly 63 years, until Marge's death just before Christmas in 2010. Joe and Marge raised four wonderful daughters - Bonnie, a retired preschool teacher in Vermont; Jorie, a grade school teacher in Massachusetts; Laurie, a judge in Massachusetts; and Carol, a reporter for the Catholic News Service in Washington - whose loving hearts and great spirits mirror their parents'.
Joe nearly died of a broken heart a month after Marge died, but he recovered, and so did we. He continued carrying out home repairs, like gluing kitchen chairs back together, and tinkering with plumbing and other problems until repairmen had to be called in as a last resort. Many of my friends expressed an interest in Grandpa Joe living with them.
Grandpa Joe also became our "go-to" guy for special prayer requests, for friends and family members facing illnesses or other difficulties. For years, Grandpa Joe had gone to the grotto at Emmitsburg and prayed on Wednesday afternoons. Now he wasn't the first holy man to go to the mountains and pray - Moses had him beat - but Grandpa Joe had a list of his own heavenly board of directors that he called his "committee" that included Old Testament prophets, famous and little-known saints, and ordinary holy people, whom he called on by name, seeking their intercession. The first name on his typed list was Jesus. The second-to-the last name was John Paul II. And the last name, later added in Joe's handwriting, was "Marjorie," his dear wife. At first Joe's prayer quest to the mountains was spurred by the diagnosis of his prostate cancer, but as that illness went into remission, we sought out Joe's prayers for those in need. Later in his old age, he stopped his pilgrimages to the mountain, and instead prayed the rosary every day sitting in the comfortable chair in his living room downstairs.
As a member of the Mother of God Catholic charismatic community, Grandpa Joe believed deeply in the power of prayer, and he was not shy about praising God. Our kids enjoyed seeing their grandfather standing beside them at Mass, singing and clapping along to the words of the spiritual "Soon and very soon, we are going to see the king..."
When he walked up and down the steps of our home, sometimes a bit unsteadily, Grandpa Joe would instinctively stop halfway, and dip his hand in the holy water font he had positioned above the railing.
We were also inspired by Grandpa Joe's lifelong intellectual curiosity, his sense of wonder and awe at God and all creation. In his career, Grandpa Joe had worked as a chemist for General Foods, responsible for the quality control of ingredients like chocolate and coconut. He understandably had a lifelong love for Jell-O, a product whose success helped pay his pension. At our kitchen table, Grandpa Joe liked to scan the ingredients of products on the labels of boxes and jars, and he often wore sweatshirts with variations of the periodic table, including one with the initials of elements somehow spelling the word "CHOCOLATE," perhaps his favorite compound.
Grandpa Joe was thrilled to get a Kindle and pump up the size of the letters of the online books he was reading, as his eyesight got progressively worse in later years. He loved reading thrillers, historical works and the Bible and other spiritual books.
This past year, Grandpa Joe took up the accordion and was teaching himself to play the polka music that he so loved. On Columbus Day, I accompanied him to Best Buy, where Grandpa Joe determinedly pushed his walker around the store and found the laptop that he wanted to buy. When he got home with his new laptop, Grandpa Joe pulled a pen knife out of his pocket, sliced open the box and held up the owner's manual close to his glasses and began reading the instructions.
We had a strict rule at our house - no cellphone use at the dinner table, which was imposed after various infractions by our teen son and daughter. But Grandpa Joe was a chronic rule breaker, often placing his iPhone near his plate. He kept in close touch with his out-of-town daughters and with his seven grandchildren, and since he was hard-of-hearing, we often heard his correspondents chatting loudly on his phone's speaker.
Grandpa Joe delighted in his grandchildren's adventures, such as when Caitlin, a teacher at a Boston high school, traveled to Turkey this past year, and Alex, who works for an off-Broadway theater, flew to Africa to film a commercial. The proud grandfather liked chatting with his granddaughter Alanna when she called from college in Oregon. And in recent weeks, Grandpa Joe's oldest grandson Dan, an architect from Massachusetts, visited and received one of his grandfather's Bibles as a gift and keepsake.
In our home, Grandpa Joe enjoyed the Lego constructions and occasional song-and-dance routines performed by our first grader son Matt, and he was entertained by the beautiful piano playing by our daughter Anna, a high school senior. Grandpa Joe maintained a close relationship with his namesake, our oldest son Joe, now a student at the University of Maryland. They called each other frequently, and when Joe Zimmermann came home on weekends, he liked hanging out with his grandpa. When our families moved in the house together 12 years ago, young Joe was 8, and he would faithfully go downstairs each night to hug his grandparents goodnight.
On Monday morning of Holy Week, my wife Carol walked downstairs and found that Grandpa Joe had fallen and was unresponsive. Paramedics rushed him to a hospital, where it was determined that he had massive bleeding in his brain. After cherishing living with Grandpa Joe all these years, we faced the reality that he was dying.
Our family kept a vigil at Grandpa Joe's bedside at the Montgomery Hospice, where he was treated with great love and care. One by one and sometimes two-by-two, family members arrived to join the vigil. His eldest daughter Bonnie flew in late that evening from Vermont, and then slept that night in Grandpa Joe's room to be near him. The next day, his second daughter Jorie and her husband Jimmy made a 10-hour drive from Massachusetts to be with Grandpa Joe.
Grandpa Joe remained in a very deep sleep, his eyes closed and his breathing heavy. We expressed words of thanks and love to him, prayed many decades of the rosary, and played music that he liked. Jorie found Bob Marley's "Three Little Birds" on her iPad, and placed it on her dad's pillow, so he could hear the refrain, "Don't worry about a thing, 'cause every little thing's gonna be all right..."
And our friends whom Grandpa Joe had prayed for over the years let us know that now they were praying for him, including a woman whose little boy had undergone surgery at Children's Hospital, and Grandpa Joe had prayed for that boy by name every day for months. "Now we're praying for Grandpa Joe and for your family," she wrote me in an email. Grandpa Joe had prayed for another friend's wife who had undergone surgery and other treatments for breast cancer, and that husband and wife let me know that they too were now praying for Grandpa Joe. As Joe was dying, those of us at his bedside experienced three days of grace, having the honor and blessing of holding Joe's hand and praying for him, and knowing that so many others were praying for this man who prayed for us and for all of our special intentions over the years.
Early on Holy Thursday, Bonnie was at her father's bedside at the hospice as a nurse checked his vital signs, and Grandpa Joe died. How fitting it was that Grandpa Joe died on Holy Thursday, the day when Jesus gave us the gift of the Eucharist and the gift of the Mass. I'll never forget Joe's devotion to the Mass, in his last years when he would determinedly use his walker to accompany us to our pew at church, and how later in the Mass he would patiently wait at our pew for the Eucharistic minister, and the beautiful, reverent way he would cup his hands to receive Communion and say "Amen."
Holy Thursday was also the day when Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, and that is just what Joe was, a disciple, a regular guy who walked with the Lord. And just as Jesus called on his disciples to serve as he did, Joe volunteered faithfully for years serving the poor with the St. Vincent de Paul Society, and in his retirement he helped out at a soup kitchen at St. Martin's Parish in Gaithersburg called, fittingly, the Lord's Table.
Perhaps the perfect tribute to Grandpa Joe was offered by his daughter Laurie, who spoke to him as he was dying on a call to an iPhone placed on his pillow, on speaker as so many of his family phone calls were in recent years.
Judge Laurie, her voice sometimes breaking, expressed beautiful words of thanks and love to her dear father. "Well, Dad," she said, "you've lived a good long life, and you showed us how to live."
At that moment, Joe continued to sleep soundly and peacefully, the deep sleep of a man with a clean conscience and a good heart, on his way to heaven, the ultimate goal of his life and the place he hoped to lead his family and friends. A man of prayer, Grandpa Joe's life was a prayer, composed of words and good works in praise of the God he loved and served, so faithfully and so well. One of Joe's favorite phrases describes him perfectly: "Fantastic!"