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How lucky we are to be alive right now: Reflections on “Hamilton,” grief, and 2020

<p>Anna McGee / The Daily Princetonian</p>

Anna McGee / The Daily Princetonian

July 3 was the day I, like many former theater kids across the globe, had been waiting for all summer. 

Disney released the long-awaited, filmed version of "Hamilton: An American Musical" on its subscription streaming service, and I was only too happy to fork over the money and watch. When the cast took their bows, I found myself unexpectedly in tears. Angelica's lines where she sang of her intense bond with her sister, Eliza; Alexander and Eliza's devastation at the loss of their 19-year-old-son, Philip; Eliza's questioning of how to carry the burden of Alexander's legacy after his passing — all of these moments reminded me of my brother, how much I loved him, and how many questions I still have now that he's gone.

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.

This summer, as my brother's "deathiversary" approaches, I made "Nonstop" my anthem — from the moment I wake up till the moment I go to bed I'm doing something, or trying to. I have a job Zooming with first-years as one of Princeton's Summer Engagement Coordinators, and I'm also tutoring a few people on the side and working as an RA for two weeks at Kentucky's Governor's Scholars Program, in addition to dedicating my time to projects within the 'Prince.' My mom tells me to take a break occasionally, but it usually has the same outcome as when Eliza sings for Alexander to stop working and come upstate with her and their family for the summer: I say no, I have another plan to see through.

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. 


Anna McGee / The Daily Princetonian


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.

You see, the best part of being a Princeton student for me these past two semesters was the grind. If you force yourself to commit to it, you don't have time to think about much else. If I had stayed back in Kentucky, every time I walked through my house would have brought up memories of my brother. I couldn't deal with it. At Princeton, I was tucked away from the well-meaning community members who frequented my family home with tears and casseroles. More importantly, constantly having another class to attend or another extracurricular to coordinate made it so I didn't have the time to debate all the weird uncertainties that arise when someone crosses into "the other side" — like, can I still call myself a twin now that my brother has passed, or how do I know what to write on the headstone, or what color should that headstone be, or is it okay to take the unopened toothpaste from his room and use it, or even what should I do when the "deathiversary" arrives? My boyfriend, who has texted me with lots of emojis at midnight every month since our first date, told me he'd come down to visit the grave with me on August 2, but what am I supposed to do with that? Take the day off work and drive to The Livingston County Historical Cemetery to sit around in the hot sun and sweat? Sometimes, I don't even want to know the answer.

And maybe that's because there is no right answer in the first place. At the close of "Hamilton," Eliza finds a handy guide to honoring Alexander's memory by reading the thousands of pages of writings he left behind. When James Luke passed, I was left without a note. After the 19th chapter of the story of my brother's life, there are just a bunch of blank pages. And no matter how many times I ask myself "when my time is up, have I done enough," I have to accept that I can't expect any word from JL on if I've been mourning him correctly — at least, not in this lifetime.

I look around and feel like there is so much out of our control, so many reasons for us to feel helpless. The characters in "Hamilton" had a war to get through, but frankly, I feel like this past year would have given our founding fathers a run for their money. There are so many families out there who are going through the unimaginable after the loss of loved ones to racial injustice or the grossly mismanaged coronavirus pandemic. And beyond the tragedy of life-and-death scenarios, there are also life-changing ones. After hearing the news from Princeton concerning this coming academic year, my dad bemoaned that I am missing the next year of my college experience. Though it looks like I will be on campus in the fall, my boyfriend and close friends who are seniors and sophomores will not join me in the spring but will instead trade places with me. In the midst of an already turbulent time, the eating club parties, movie nights, and evenings gathered in the newsroom that I had been seeing as the light at the end of this long tunnel will never come to fruition. It's another layer of devastating.


Anna McGee / The Daily Princetonian

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Yet, despite how bleak the skies are, I can't help but look at how lucky we are to be alive right now. I'd do almost anything to see my brother again, and for much of my life, I thought about what might happen if I ended it. But to this, I think the important words of "Hamilton" are from its vulnerable, complex antagonist, Aaron Burr, who sings, "Life doesn't discriminate / between the sinners and the saints / It takes and it takes and it takes / And we keep living anyway." Burr then goes on to declare that if there's a reason that he's still alive, he's willing to wait to find out what it is. The difference between Burr's fictional persona and ourselves is that we don't have to wait to figure out what the reasons are for our life. In times as dark as these, the good that we can do shines all the brighter. This summer, I've witnessed friends and family become activists for Black justice, casual seamstresses become PPE producers, and communities come together to protect our international students. Living in a shattered world just means that there are all the more ways for us to fix it.

I'm not saying that my grief or the struggles we are all facing right now are pointless or finite or controllable. Some nights I, like Alexander, "imagine death so much it feels more like a memory." I replay James Luke's funeral again and again in my head and call my therapist saying I don't know how to live the next 60 years of my life without my twin. Sometimes I pull up a Google doc to try to write down how I'm feeling and am left with just the blank page.

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.


Anna McGee / The Daily Princetonian


So, come August 2, I know there's no written script to go by. There's no book out there that tells you what to do one year after someone you loved has died. But I don't have to step outside of my regular life to be able to mourn him — or be afraid to tell my friends why I'm upset. I can still send a Zoom link in my group chat to catch up with friends. I can still chat about the work I love during the Sunday 'Prince' meeting. And through all of that, I can acknowledge what the day means to me without telling myself I've just made things awkward. When I went on Twitter after watching the filmed version, I laughed a bit when I saw all of the memes circulating about how Phillipa Soo's performance of Eliza was so moving. The vulnerability Soo made the focus of Eliza's character was enough to bring viewers across the globe to tears more than once come curtain call. But though that vulnerability drew a strong emotional response from those who listened, the power vulnerability brings with it was one of the reasons so many of us fell in love with the musical in the first place — stories of people who carry with them burdens and choose to continue to go on are not only compelling but necessary. Right now more than ever, when the world is in this much pain, we need to know there are others out there who are hurting in their own way and continuing to survive, to live, and maybe even to try and make things better. These stories are all the more important when they aren't fictional.

So much of "Hamilton" is about how the characters honor those who have died by telling their stories — indeed, my favorite number from the musical is the ending one, "Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story?" I love the song because it shows how much the stories of our loved ones and their pain are our stories, too. Eliza's version of telling Alexander's story, even after reading his thousands of pages of writings, is doing something that he never suggests in the musical: building a private orphanage, the first one in all of New York City. And in this act, Eliza is able to write her own story, one that acknowledges her personal wounds left from the deaths of her son and her husband while also healing the collective pain of hundreds around her. As she helps to raise the orphanage's children, Eliza is able to pay tribute to Philip by leading these children into the adulthood he never had; on the flip side, she is able to relate the vitality she sees within the orphans to Alexander, who also grew up without parents. I don't know what healing the collective pains of the world around us is supposed to look like. But the example "Hamilton" gives us — one where attending to our individual pains furthers rather than obstructs the healing of collective pain — sounds like a good place to start.



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