July 3 was the day I, like many former theater kids across the globe, had been waiting for all summer.
Christmas 2017, when my dad paid for my family to go see the staging of “Hamilton” in Chicago after months of my brother and me singing along to it in the car, is one of the happiest memories I have. Even from our seats in the second balcony, I beamed the entire show. The cast channeled hip-hop and rap to infuse an old story from American history with the life and vitality of America today, and the diverse range of people that constitute it. After every song, I looked to my right for my brother’s reaction. Maybe the reason watching the filmed version of “Hamilton” brought to mind so many memories of James Luke was because he, too, is now part of history. And I guess I’m just here, listening to the songs that remind me of my brother and writing down old memories of us as if telling them again could change how they ended.
I wish I could say something sappy about this, like I’m working so hard in order to make my brother’s spirit proud or that I see my brother’s face in the eyes of all the first-years I interact with, but those sentiments wouldn’t be true. It’s just when I’m this busy I don’t have enough downtime to get as sad.
When the Hamiltons’ son Philip dies, the couple moves uptown to where there are fewer staring eyes and try to mourn him without mentioning him. For me, my uptown was Princeton. Three weeks after the funeral, there I was in Wilf Hall 314, unpacking the boxes from storage. I chose to come back.
When Alexander declares he is more than willing to die for his country, George Washington responds, “Dying is easy, young man. Living is harder.” I never liked the flippancy of that line. I think a better message for us might be, “Sitting back is easy. Being engaged is harder.” Some of the pains that the world is carrying right now are high up in the public eye, and we should do everything that we can to elevate Black Lives Matter, COVID-19, and mental health awareness in our news coverage and in our communities. Behind every collective harm, however, are thousands of individual wounds. Collective harm can never be fully addressed until individual pain is seen to. Maybe a good place to start treating our personal wounds is acknowledging them more publicly in the first place.
For the better part of this past year, I’ve felt like I could only mourn my brother when I was alone or silent or had a designated time for my grief. Every time I brought up James Luke in a conversation, I thought I was ruining the mood, even if it was a happier memory I was thinking about. And as Eliza’s character exemplifies in the closing number of “Hamilton,” by devoting the rest of her life to her husband’s legacy, mourning is a lifetime’s work. I can’t expect a wound this deep to ever heal back to the way it was before. But it can’t be helped at all if I hide it. Compartmentalizing the hole left by my brother’s absence as something to deal with separately from the projects and distractions with which I love to fill my days was never the right answer, and numbing myself to the pain of grief through temporary work won’t make the grief go away.