Love, Loss and Hamilton

It starts with a story, as it always does. We all have them, the narratives that we carry within us. But sometimes the yarns of those stories fray, precious beads are lost and everything is irrevocably changed.

Which might not seem like the most natural segue to Hamilton, but hear me out…that would be enough.

The Husband and I didn’t so much read Ron Chernow’s book as devour it. John works as a financial advisor. I used to write about the markets and the economy. So reading about the founding father who, with stunning foresight, built our financial system’s backbone was riveting and powerful. It evoked wondrous admiration. We took a trip to Washington D.C., walked around sightseeing until our legs fatigued. We hunted high and low for monuments glorifying Hamilton, finding only one, a statue practically hidden behind the U.S. Treasury building, barricaded from view by a giant fence. It baffled us that someone so mighty would be recognized in such a small way. Sometime after our trip we read that a Public Theater show about Hamilton was coming to Broadway. It was decided: As Hamiltonians, we should see it. John got tickets. We couldn’t wait.

And then days before Father’s Day, we got word about John’s dad. He had a brain tumor. There was a rushing to Lenox Hill, there was a Father’s Day dinner in the hospital room, there was a surgery. And then the devastating news: glioblastoma, a tangled, cancerous death sentence. It was a month spent bedside, praying, monitoring, hoping beyond all hope. There were countless complications, another surgery, even more complications. The full range of emotions were played out in painful rotation day after agonizing day. Realities were refashioned. Jobs, daily routines, everything was put on hold. John and his siblings stayed with their father day and night. There were shifts bedside, elaborate text strings to keep everyone in the loop with vitals, updates, every doctor utterance. For a month, life happened inside the hospital’s neuro intensive care unit. Everything else was deferred, including, and this is such a minor footnote to everything that happened (but there is a point), Hamilton. We gave our tickets to dear friends. Neither John nor I could fathom seeing a Broadway show.

John’s dad never left the hospital. He remained there for a month. We were with him when he passed away…saw when the light took him from us.

John and I went to Hamilton six weeks later on our anniversary. Like anyone who’s seen it, we sat agog. There was the inspiring struggle of the young scrappy and hungry, the Schuyler sisters’ infectious enthusiasm with their spirited proclamation of how lucky we are to be alive right now. There was George Washington, tall and powerful, not unlike John’s father, waxing eloquent about not running again for president. There was the scripture passage, “Everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree and no one shall make them afraid…I want to sit under my own vine and fig tree. A moment alone in the shade.” George Washington singing One Last Time brought down the house. It landed hard on John for another reason altogether.

Two months later I went to Cleveland to spend time with my beloved grandmother. She was excited when hearing of my plans, although I knew she wouldn’t remember the conversation when I arrived at the Home. Gram’s memory wasn’t what it used to be. My sister and her kids were coming as well, so there would be four generations in one room. When Gram lived in her own house we used to plant geraniums with her. We used to watch birds from the backyard porch. Always, we’d eat. Lately, the visits had been more subdued, but nonetheless just as cherished. The last day my sister and the kids were there, we sat chatting with Gram until she fell asleep in her chair. She looked so peaceful and comfortable, happy in her quiet doze. The delight she’d showered on her great-grandchildren had filled our hearts. The visit was perfect in all the ways we wanted it to be.

I stayed in town longer to spend more time with Gram, but the following day everything changed. Her decline was swift and unexpected. My grandmother, who was strong like bull from growing up on a farm in southern Ohio, who’d let my sister and me have ice cream cones for breakfast as kids, who’d let us make messes in her kitchen while “helping” her cook, this beautiful force in our lives was fading away. It was like she’d waited to see everyone before she decided to take leave of us. We stayed at her bedside for three days. Then she was gone. Gram was never one to linger.

About a month later, John and I saw Hamilton again. There was George Washington explaining his resignation and that song…again, that song. There was Eliza mourning the death of her son, draping her body over his in abject grief. I knew that gutted-out drape, had held my gram just so after watching her take last breath. There was the lilting refrain threaded throughout the show, who lives who dies who tells your story.

And there was:

There are moments that the words don’t reach.

There is a grace too powerful to name.

We push away what we can never understand.

We push away the unimaginable.

Sometimes you sit in a theater and try not to cry like an animal because of what’s evoked within you.

The year went on. My family dealt with cancer. John’s aunt passed away. We saw Hamilton again. We kept returning to Hamilton, yes, for the brilliance rendered on stage, for the genius story and song Lin-Manuel Miranda gifted to the world, for the performances so riveting you simply cannot look away. But we also returned because it became, in the strangest of ways, our touchstone.

(Allow me to pause here for a moment to say I know how this sounds, how obnoxious it is discussing the multiple times you’ve seen Hamilton. To steal a line from the show, Yo, who the F is this? Truly, I get it. But my point isn’t to be showoffy. It’s been a blessing. It’s also because my prescient husband, who after seeing it once early in its run, planned ahead and bought many more tickets, unbeknownst to him what would become of ticket prices…or what sad future curveballs we’d be fielding.)

Hamilton came to hold another meaning for us because of the stories we carried, just as it has for anyone who’s sat in the Richard Rodgers Theater or in any other during fragile times of their lives. Our stories, those tales of love and loss and even hope that are tethered to our marrow, the ones that define us, we gather their ends up and hold them close. Take them to Broadway shows and sit with them, watch another story unfold before us. And before you realize it, the story on the stage has plucked something deep within you, informing you in the most surprising way about your own narrative.

Through some artistic alchemy bordering on magic, stories somehow blend together in a dim theater. The one playing out before you knits with your own, and after the final act you leave feeling like you have a knowledge of something larger, more meaningful. For John and me, those frayed yarns we’d been forlornly dragging around, we gradually wove them back into our larger narratives. We might lose those we love, but we still carry their essence, their strength, their enduring optimism with us. All that matters abides. Time always helps, sure. But sometimes, you sit in a theater and you’re reminded to laugh, to marvel, to get excited about life’s possibilities. You remember that you’ve got to keep feeling, even if it hurts. Sometimes you cry, sobbing so hard while walking home from the theater that you have to stop because you’re taking in too much air and can’t take in enough at the same time. And if you’re lucky like I am, the person you love with every cell of your being, the person you’ve chosen to stand with no matter what, he’ll be there to hold you on Sixth Avenue.

The point is that we’re all trying to make our stories as big and as bright and as meaningful as possible with this time we have. Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes the grief makes it seem impossible. But then you go to a show and you see the possibility. Better yet, you feel it.

And so, on Thursday we’re seeing Hamilton again, for what I’m guessing is the last time for a long, long while. Usually, I’d wear something black—evening out in New York and all. But Gram, gosh, she loved color. So I’m going to wear something bright for her. John will look more dapper than usual because this is a week heavy with memories—it marks one year since John’s story and my own started unraveling in their own ways. Like anyone who’s dealt with loss, we’ve refashioned our personal narratives. And there’s no denying it, in the most wondrous way, Hamilton helped.

So, to Mr. Miranda, a heartfelt thank you. We’re just two people who will be sitting in your audience on Thursday enjoying your beautiful, poignant, crazy powerful story. Thank you for everything it’s given us this past year. We’ve come out on the other side with our stories stronger because of it.