I was fortunate enough to grow up among a number of Irish families in my home town of Hyattsville. The family next door to us had four children, including a delightful little boy named Danny and called Dan Dan. Tragically, at the age of 4 his leukemia was diagnosed; he died five years later, just before Christmas in 1974.
At his funeral at our church, St. Jerome's, my sister Cathleen sang a beautiful Irish air, "Come by the Hills":
And sing while the birds fill the air with their joy all day long
Where the trees sway in time and even the wind sings in tune
And the cares of tomorrow must wait 'til this day is done
That tune remained with me for some time. I recall hearing it a month later as my mother and I looked down at Dan Dan's grave while the cold winter wind rustled through the evergreens of the Gate of Heaven Cemetery in Silver Spring. And I recall how we both looked up in silence as the late afternoon sun illuminated the gravestones leading to the small chapel.
Fourteen years later, my mother, body ravaged by cancer, mind clouded by the drugs used to ease her pain, chose out of the blue to sing to Colleen, my oldest sister, who was at her bedside. It was her favorite song, a very old Irish tune called "Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms." It was one my sister had also sung in St. Jerome's but at a much happier occasion -- the wedding of our youngest sister, Connie.
Which I gaze on so fondly today
Were to change by tomorrow and fleet in my arms
Like fairy gifts fading away
Thou wouldst still be adored as this moment thou art . . .
Soon after, my mother died and was buried at the Gate of Heaven, 25 yards or so from Dan Dan's grave, not far from the small chapel our sober eyes had viewed on that bitterly cold January day years before.
Like Dan Dan, my father died from leukemia, on the first day of September 2000. Our family agreed it would be appropriate to have a bagpiper play at the graveside service. I had several tunes in mind but specified only one song to the piper; he was to play "Amazing Grace" after the closing prayer.
On the sunny, late summer morning of the funeral, I arrived at the cemetery and listened for the sound of bagpipes. It took me just a second to recognize the tune. It was "Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms."
After the final prayer had been said, I waited to hear "Amazing Grace" but that was not what was being played. At first I was angry that my instructions were not being followed. A few seconds later, I realized what the piper was playing. It was "Come by the Hills."
He then went straight into "Amazing Grace." Asked later why he hadn't followed my instruction, he said he didn't recall me specifying that "Amazing Grace" be played immediately after the final prayer. And how was it that he chose the other two melodies? He said he simply thought they fit the occasion.
Was it mere coincidence? Perhaps. But I want to believe that "Come by the Hills" and "Believe Me, if All Those Endearing Young Charms" were the songs my father heard that September morning when he was greeted by my mother and Dan Dan as he entered the true gates of heaven.