I was strolling down Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh, North Carolina one night last week. I was in town on business and looking for a place to eat a good meal and relax with a cold beer. I heard the unmistakable music of a lively Irish lilt. Intrigued, I followed the tune and found myself at the Hibernian pub. The doors opened wide, out onto the sidewalk cafe. Sitting on a bench, half in the pub, half on the sidewalk was a man playing the guitar and signing loudly. He was a redheaded giant of a man, all of 6’ 4” with an unruly full beard and was red in the face due to the exertion of signing over the raucous crowd or from too much ale, probably a bit of each. I squeezed by the giant and in between a smaller, skinny man playing a concertina and a young girl dancing an Irish gig. I didn’t realize it yet but by a serendipitous turn of events I had stumbled into an Irish wake.
It was relatively small inside and the only stool available was right next to the band. The dancing girl made room for me so I sat down and ordered a pint of Smithwick’s Ale. The crowd seemed to be a tight knit group of people who had apparently been drinking for some time. And the musicians seemed to be more a group of friends rather than a professional band on a gig. A woman sat in front of the skinny concertina player and fed him a fork-full of what looked like a Belgium waffle. He would lean forward in-between squeezing his music box and I wasn’t quite certain if he was going to fall forward or manage to gulp down another mouthful. But he was smiling and playing and this calamitous cacophony of sound somehow came together. The singing giant, the dancing girl, the concertina and the yelling of the crowd, blended into a wonderful song of life.
As I sat sipping my beer and absorbing the scene, a tall bald headed man sat next to me and introduced himself. “I’m Dan” he said. I shook his hand and told him “I’m Mike”.
“And how do you know Peter”? He asked. I told him I didn’t know who Peter was, but I heard the music and had come in to enjoy it. Dan proceeded to tell me about his friend Peter Shilling and why all these people were here to celebrate his life.
Peter was a school teacher and had passed away at the tender age of 51 on July 13, 2008. He died of cancer. This struck me as quite a coincidence as my older brother was also a school teacher, and had passed away 7 years ago at the age of 51, on July 5th. He also had died of cancer.
Dan told me how special Peter was. He was very much against the war in Iraq and wanted all people to live in peace. As a matter fact, all the guests were wearing peace buttons like the ones that were popular in the ‘60s and ‘70s. Peter’s sons were there and Dan told me how special the prayer was that Peter’s oldest son had given. There was a poster of Peter on the bar. It had a picture of his face and in large print over his head was the message “Stand Against War and Racism”. Next to his face on the side were the words “No War on Iraq”.
Dan introduced me to another friend, Chris. Chris was from England and a school teacher as well. We sat and talked. We sat and toasted Peter and my brother Roy, honoring them with stories of their lives and how they had affected those that they met. I told them about my brother who was also a teacher and an activist who protested against the war in Vietnam. My brother was similarly honored by many friends and colleagues at his funeral. I told them about how my father had immigrated to this country, had served in WWII and also had become a teacher. We marveled at the similarities of Peter’s experience to that of my brother. We became friends.
Once I got home from my trip I was determined to find out more. After an internet search I found his obituary.
Peter Schilling let go of the world he loved on Sunday, July 13, 2008. He was a wonderful dad, friend to countless people, a teacher, activist, card player, film lover and avid reader, handyman, and a magician of exquisite talent. He would perform sleight of hand with a simple yet complex grace, tricks that grew in wonder as they progressed, surprising even the most hardened cynic. But Peter was magical in every sense of the word: small gestures of kindness toward everyone, a devout commitment to justice and peace, and an ability to uncover beauty in even the most mundane. Thanks to his passion for life, he leaves this world a better place.
To a stranger walking by, it appeared that a real wild party was going on that night. And in a sense there was. It was a party celebrating the life of those departed. There were some tears, but there was plenty of laughter as well as the guests shared all the funny stories, happy times, and triumphs of the dead and recorded it all in the memories of the living.
God bless Peter Shilling and God Bless my Brother Roy.