“The smile on (Joe’s) face was an invitation for all of us to become part of his life.”
These words, spoken at the prayer vigil for Joe Keller, 21, at the Shanley High School gym the evening of May 28, seemed worthy to hold and heed as I continued processing the death of my young friend.
Joe’s infectious smile was more than cliché. It pointed to something beyond this world.
Our daughter Beth’s classmate, Joe died of complications from Duchenne muscular dystrophy on May 22. We learned he’d been airlifted to Mayo Hospital the afternoon prior. In the midst of preparing for our middle son’s graduation party, we watched a livestream Rosary recited by Joe’s classmates and others gathered outside Shanley, Joe’s former school.
The next evening, as we dragged decorations, table coverings and utensils into our church social hall to ready for our party, Joe readied for eternal life.
Learning of Joe’s death a few hours later, I realized that as he passed, I’d been standing where he and I had had our last, long conversation. It was at his graduation party in May 2018. We reveled together in his plans to attend my alma mater and study broadcast journalism – the same track I’d chosen many years earlier.
Not surprisingly, Joe would focus on sports broadcasting. Athletics consumed a fair amount of his life. But even more than the games, Joe loved the people. Some have suggested sports merely provided an excuse for Joe to draw closer to others. Indeed, a higher purpose seemed to motivate his actions.
Muscular dystrophy took much from Joe, but not his cheerful attitude. God asks only that we use the gifts he gives us to love others, and Joe complied, using the God-given gift of his smile to connect with many.
As this school year waned, many beautiful messages of faith came forth, and in each, I sensed Joe.
At our son’s baccalaureate Mass, when Bishop Folda reminded the graduates that Jesus is the one and only truly faithful companion we’ll have, I sensed Joe nodding.
Later, at the graduation luncheon, when Mrs. Jangula defined faith as “an openness to God’s voice,” I could feel Joe’s affirmation. “Keep an open mind and heart,” she’d said. Through his smile, Joe did.
And at the vigil, when Fr. William Slattery spoke of Joe’s heart, “which knew, from the moment of his birth and throughout his life, a great love and acceptance” through his family’s love – a love that came first from God himself, and which was “constantly encouraging him and produced such a meek and beautiful life filled with joy” – Joe’s “Yes!” seemed certain.
Fr. Slattery noted that in grief, sorrow and smiles often converge, providing an opportunity for us to “delve into the mystery of God’s love for us.”
I pray that in pondering the wide, wonderful smile of my sweet friend Joe, you’ll sense the invitation – to love, to hope, to joy, and to their source, which Joe now knows intimately: God’s heart.
[For the sake of having a repository for my newspaper columns and articles, I reprint them here, with permission, a week after their run date. The preceding ran in The Forum newspaper on June 7, 2021.]