A Life in Song

Pixabay/The Colorado Rockies

Ceili’s Infinite Playlist

Ceili in Paris in 2012

By John Leahy

I was sad to read back in February about the death of David Crosby. What a voice, what harmonies. Still. I remember thinking, so many years ago, when he was in the midst of a downward spiral of drugs and guns, like a character in a Shakespearean tragedy, what a shame that someone with such gifts is on the fast road to a short life. That was probably 10 years before Ceili was born, and it was inconceivable to me then that he would outlive my yet-unborn child. He was not yet 50, but seemed to me—still in my 20s—an old guy with one foot in the grave—notwithstanding the guns and drugs. Never doubt what time in the big house will do to amend one’s ways.

* * *

Ceili loved Crosby Stills and Nash. And Young, too, though she considered them separate units, as they generally do themselves. Just before Ceili turned 14, my wife Leslie’s brother, Jeff, scored tickets to see CSN live in Charlottesville. Leslie took Ceili (not me!) and CSN became ensconced as a favorite and one of the few Big Acts she got to see in her brief tenure as music lover and occasional critic.

Ceili found strength in music. It not only calmed and soothed her during stressful and painful times, like in the mire of chemo, but it also refreshed and rejuvenated her. Music therapy was kismet. Music sometimes gave her, like it does many, a glimpse of herself from the outside, a reflection moving through the mist of lyric and melody.

Late in her treatment, Ceili set out to create a playlist of her favorite folk music. Between the chemo and pain meds, she went down rabbit holes exploring and rediscovering a handful of her favorite artists. When she listened to her new playlist in the hospital, she realized it was quite narrow and very deep. It included everything by Eric Balkey and Patty Griffin, plus a few other songs, but lacked many artists she cherished. At that particular moment, our musical tastes overlapped, so she asked if I would pull together a playlist that would encompass more of the folk-type songs she loved. Of course I agreed. And proceeded to go down my own rabbit hole. 

It started with CSN.

After a few hours, I had a play list I creatively titled, “CSN and Friends.” It had just about every song we knew by CSN, Neil Young, James Taylor, Jim Croce, Peter Mayer, John Denver, The Grateful Dead, John Prine, Gordon Lightfoot, Patty Griffin (of course), and many, many others. It ran roughly two full days. Rubbing my eyes, I said to myself, “Well, we’ve got more, but is that the mission?” 

So, I went to The Master. And with Ceili’s help, we whittled it down to favorites: We added songs she loved from artists she did not, subtracted songs she did not love from artists she did, and we ended up with “CSN and a Few Friends.” (Clever, eh?) That one did the trick. It is still very long—almost eight hours—but she loved every song on it.  And we do, too.

The last months of her life we listened to this playlist a lot. Not every day, but it was like comfort food on a cold, dreary night: warm, familiar, satisfying. It was the soundtrack of her last few days, what everyone who came to see her, to say goodbye, heard playing gently in the background.

It was playing when Ceili died. Magically, mystically, maybe ironically, the song that played as she slipped out of the room was, “Rocky Mountain High.” It’s a song that was and remains powerful medicine for our family, even more so after the Angels and Saints of Fredericksburg granted Ceili’s wish to see the Rockies again. We love the poignant, almost-mournful, then-soaring sound. And the lyrics: Transition, not looking back, accepting one’s self, finding grace in new places, people, and beginnings.

* * *

David Crosby, from what I gather, saw in the cold light of sobriety the time and talent he had wasted on the way. And, to his credit, he changed. He began writing again and reconciled (somewhat) with his old mates . . .  enough, at least, to stir his gift and make more beautiful music.

Ceili didn’t live long enough to waste and then salvage her gifts. To be sure, she had her trials, errors, and triumphs. But she never lost that native hue of resolution to the thief that is age, and its co-conspirator, fear. Never was she sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. Hamlet would not have been much older than Ceili when he spoke those words. Ceili was a thinker, like him, but unlike Hamlet, Ceili was a creature of action. She shared her gifts freely, generously, without hesitation. We remember that when we listen to her favorite songs, and as we strive to share our gifts in service to our fellow Earthlings.


John Leahy is vice president and cofounder of the Ceili Leahy Service Project, a local non-profit organization that promotes community service and volunteerism. CLSP honors the legacy of his daughter, Ceili, who died of cancer in 2016 at age 19. Ceili loved her Fredericksburg community and worked tirelessly to serve it. She continues to inspire young people to act locally while believing globally. To learn more about Ceili and the Project, click here: CLServiceProject.org.