She would have organized this. She would have asked what we were planning to wear, and suggested the appropriate degree of dressiness or casualness. She would have told us, several times, in speech and in emails, what time to be there, and then she would have been the last to arrive. And we would have teased her about it.
I’m sitting on the stage at Dugan’s Pub in downtown Little Rock on the Saturday before St. Pat’s, crammed in with six other musicians, playing for a sea of green-clad, beer-filled revelers feasting on fish and chips, corned beef and cabbage. On a small table at the front of the stage, an Irish drum is propped up, at the request of the bar owner, who’s provided two red roses in memory and tribute. That’s for Peggy, our friend, our fellow musician, who succumbed to cancer in January. She was 54.
I remember the evening I met her. It was more than 20 years ago, the first time I’d gotten my courage up to go check out the Irish session that played in the Barnes and Noble cafe in those days. She saw a newcomer and warmly greeted me. I think she got up from her playing that night to dance. I think she might have sung.
I took to the music, and eventually was in a band with her for a little while, then in another band with her for a long while, then played occasionally as a duo or a trio with her, mostly at gigs that she arranged for us. Rehearsals in our homes, road trips, performances, meals — there was a lot of shared life together.
I’m in the choir loft of St. Edward Catholic Church a few blocks away on Sunday morning, eye level with the statues of the saints. I’ve been up here before, but always with Peg, who sang in the choir. The last time I was in this church was for her memorial Mass. There was a disorienting moment sitting in the sanctuary, near the front, when I heard from above and behind the beginning strains of the Irish blessing we had played from up there together. It knocked me weak, and the dam that had been welling in my chest spilled out my eyes.
May the road rise up to meet you
may the wind be always with you
may the sunshine warm you always
’til we meet again
Later that evening I realized how difficult it must have been for her choirmates to sing that less than 48 hours after her passing. This morning, though, we’ve all had the balm of time, and there are little girls in their Irish dance finery, ready to flit up the aisle. I’m playing a whistle that used to be Peg’s, and trying to let it sing for all it’s worth. After Mass, we go downstairs to the cafeteria, like so many mid-March Sundays before, and play for dancers who run through their competition routines, watching their teachers for subtle signs to speed up a hair or slow down a wee bit, watching the dancers to anticipate their bows and bring the tune to a close whether we’re at the end or not. I get to meet Peggy’s sisters for the first time, and tell them I don’t have a sister but I feel like I know what it is to have one because of my friendship with theirs. We will all shed tears after the dancing when we watch a video tribute to her, which we’ve all seen before, which closes out with her singing her song “What Makes God Smile?”
Love him supremely
Trust him completely
Obey him wholeheartedly …
Use your talents
Use your skills
Use your God-given ability …
And God will smile, oh, God will smile, yes, God will smile on you …
So now, this very minute, on the actual St. Patrick’s Day, I’m off with my whistles and flutes, and hers that is now mine, to go play this music that I love with friends I love, and to remember her, and feel her absence, and overflow with sorrow and love, to be buoyed by the sounds we make with our own hands and lungs, and also by a hundred thousand thankfuls … for the gift of two decades of deepening friendship, for musical escapades, and slipping-off-my-chair laughter, and quiet moments together at a hospital bedside, and prayers. For the knowledge that the magnitude of grief over those who’ve left says something about the magnitude of love for and from them while they were here. And, always, for another glorious day, each one unlike any before or to come, to share the music of life with others.