Last summer, Peg sent me a birthday card apologizing for being several months late, because as she put it: “The cancer is doing its thing.”
“I’m OK,” she explained, “but I think I’m probably only going to be around for another six months.”
It was quintessential Peg, as blunt as she was kind, as tough as she was soft, and with the singular courage that enabled her to say she was “OK” in one breath and that she had six months left to live in the next.
Along with the card, she’d enclosed a colorful cocktail napkin that read, “Be the kind of woman that when your feet hit the floor each morning, the devil says “Oh crap, she’s up.”
That, too, was classic Peg: a fiercely faith-adhering woman even when the doctrine of her Catholic church clashed with her open heart (“Thank God for Pope Francis,” she’d said in a phone call in September) and especially when life’s deck of cards dealt her more than anyone’s fair share of calamity.
Born Margaret Moira O’Brien in 1949, Peg was the youngest of Bill and Mary Jane O’Brien’s three daughters. She was raised in Grosse Pointe Farms. Bill and Mary Jane were among my parents’ oldest friends from Chicago. Peg attended the Academy of Sacred Heart and went on to St. Mary’s College in Indiana. She was likely on track to marry and have a family when, in 1985, Bill and Mary Jane, both 67 at the time, died in a fire in their Lake Shore Drive home in Grosse Pointe Farms.
Arson investigators said flammable fluid had been spread in a first-floor pantry and an adjacent den, but they never arrested anyone. Because Bill was a vice president in labor relations for Chrysler, and early on, had been a FBI agent, there were whispers that this was some kind of mob hit.
I remember the memorial service at St. Paul’s by the Lake — my mother in visible shock, haunted by the thought of Mary Jane, because she’d been found at the top of the stairs in her nightgown, her wristwatch stopped at 3:03 a.m.
To be sure, I never fully appreciated the sledge-hammer grief that thwarted any plans for a carefree, happily ever after for Peg. When I later moved to Chicago, newly divorced, unemployed and completely self-absorbed, Peg took me under her wing, as was her way with any lost soul: doormen, custodians and bag ladies. Her bounty of compassion prompted one friend to conclude that while she worked at Continental Bank, International Harvester and as a writer, her real profession was a humanitarian.
In the days following 9/11 when the rest of us were hunkered down in front of our TVs too panic-stricken to move, Peg typed up an invitation: “Cookies and a Kind Word” and slipped it under each of the doors on the 15th floor of her high-rise condo on Chicago’s lakefront. “Dear Neighbors,” it said. “I believe that the more we are communal, the more we spread peace and hope resonating in our broken world. So, as a small, or maybe bigger than we know, act to bring love and counter fear, let’s get together and have some tea and cookies with our 15th floor friends to be.”
After tea was served, she led the group in St. Francis of Assisi’s prayer: “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace. Where there is hatred let me bring your love.” She explained to Pulitzer Prize-winning Chicago Tribune columnist Mary Schmich, who later wrote about Peg’s outreach: “I like it because it’s not too Christian; it covers everybody.”
After I received the card, I called Peg and we talked for almost an hour. I was so struck by her acceptance: “I told the doctors it’s not like I’m waiting for any grandchildren to be born, I’d just as soon make my way to heaven.”
Peg had estimated six months about right; she died on Nov. 29. In mid-December, my best friend (also a lifelong friend of Peg’s) and I drove to Chicago for her memorial service. Because Peg wouldn’t have it any other way, we Christmas shopped on the Magnificent Mile the night before and went on an early morning run on the beach before the service.
Peg handpicked every scripture passage, reading, hymn and psalm. In fact, the priest said he’d really struggled because Peg’s instructions for the mass was 25 pages long. We cried and we laughed and we prayed. But most of all, we felt loved by Peg, which, of course was per Peg’s orders.
So while our hearts were measurably heavy, there was great comfort in the knowledge that if Peg could elicit from the devil an “Oh crap she’s up!” surely St. Peter said upon her arrival: “Thank God, you’re home!”