Author of Memorable Moments

Month: July 2008

A Celebration of Life

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.

What’s a Man’s Age

My favorite quote from the English poet Robert Browning is about age. “What’s a man’s age? He must hurry more, that’s all; Cram in a day, what his youth took a year to hold.” I can tell you a bit about age as I do have some experience in this matter.  Time is relentless and it can be cruel but your age is what you make of it. Last Thursday I had one of those days that blurred my perception of time and age. 

The older I get the harder it is for me to guess what a person’s age is.  Probably because I still think I’m 20 years old.  It actually surprises me to learn a person’s age, I’m almost always wrong when I try to guess. This year I’ve been playing softball on my company’s team.  I’m past my prime softball years to say the least, but I’m there mostly to socialize and participate in a healthy activity.  I was a little frustrated at first because I felt I wasn’t playing up to my ability.  But I realized as I was driving home from one of the games that the last time I played softball was about 12 years ago.  On top of that, the average age of my teammates is probably 30, that makes me 20 years older than most of them.

After the game last Thursday I asked one of my new friends on the team if he wanted to have a beer with the rest of us. He said he couldn’t because he was driving.  “Good for you, that’s smart” I said. Then he came a little closer to me and said “I’m only 19”.  This was the first of several occurrences that blurred my perception of age.

On the way home from the game I listened to a message on my cell phone, it was from one of my college roommates.  It turned out that another one of our roommates was flying in for the weekend.  His son had accepted a commission at the Coast Guard Academy and was starting orientation that weekend. They would be staying at my friend’s house. I called him back and made plans to meet them. I couldn’t wait to meet up with my buddies and catch up on old times, but I couldn’t believe that one of my old roommates had a son old enough to be in the Coast Guard.

When I got home that same night I learned that my 17 year old had gone to Mohegan Sun with her best friend and her family.  I was waiting up for her to come home and started watching a George Carlin Tribute.  It was a compilation of his past routines and I remembered most of them from when they first aired.  I remembered when he hosted SNL for the first time for their premier show in 1975. I remember when he was so controversial that he was arrested for his famous “Seven words you can never say on TV” routine that lead to arrest, prosecution – and even a Supreme Court judgment.

As I was sitting there enjoying my memories of George Carlin my daughter called in.  She told me that some guy just gave her and her friend tickets to a sold out Billy Joel concert for free. Apparently this guy’s friends didn’t show and instead of wasting the tickets he was kind enough to share them.

She held up her phone and I heard the roar of the crowd as Billy Joel played the “Piano Man”. This instantly brought back memories of the first time I saw him in concert.  It was over 30 years ago during his 1976 ‘Turnstiles’ tour and I was in college at the time. Me and my roommates, the same guys I was going to visit, saw him in a small auditorium that held about 3,000 people.  It was an awesome concert and I remember exactly how I felt as he played.  He sat at his grand piano dressed in a black suit, white shirt and tie and played for more than 3 and ½ hours including 3 or 4 encores.

She said she thought the concert was over and hung up.  Then she called me back two minutes later and said “He’s playing another song”! She was surprised he kept playing; I told her I wasn’t surprised. I was glad that she remembered to call me and I was glad I had those memories to share. 

What’s a man’s age?  I can remember exactly what it was like to actually be good at playing softball. I can remember exactly what it was like at that Billy Joel concert 30 years ago. I had fun playing softball last Thursday and I had fun meeting my college roommate’s son last weekend. What’s my age? I’m old enough to know how great it is to be the age I am.

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