This is the set of Hamilton, open to the audience when you first enter the Richard Rodgers Theatre on Broadway. I looked down at my ticket in utter disbelief: ORCH E8, 849.00. Annie and I were holding the hottest tickets in town, premium seats no less. I leaned over to her. “It’s really happening.”
“Yes,” she said.
I knew that Annie was over-the-moon excited. But I also knew that she was deeply grieving. I wasn’t the one she really wanted to be with to see this show.
Annie works in Manhattan and had repeatedly entered the lottery for Hamilton tickets for some time. It was the one show her partner Doug’s mom, Pat, had really wanted to see, and to which Annie desperately wanted to treat her dear friend and practically-mother-in-law. They had attended Radio City Christmas Spectacular and On Your Feet together, and when Pat was diagnosed with kidney cancer, it was Annie’s one and only wish to take her to see Hamilton. It was to be the gift of a lifetime, a gift of gratitude and of love, and a grand wish for Pat to experience the pinnacle of human existence for as long as possible.
Miracle of miracles, Annie won two tickets. But by that point, Pat was too ill to make the trip. She passed away on August 20th, before Annie could take her.
Lottery tickets typically have to be used immediately and on the dates and times they tell you to go. But under the sad circumstances, her Broadway contact graciously gave her an extension: “Just tell me the week before you want to use them, and I’ll make it work.” She asked several family members if they could go, and for various reasons, it didn’t work out. Five months went by when suddenly I popped into Annie’s head as someone who would be a good substitute.
“Have u seen Hamilton?” she messaged me. “Would u like to?”
“Are you kidding?” I wrote back. “Yes! Have you got tix to give away?” I was half-joking because, well, who on earth has Hamilton tickets to give away.
“The most random thing,” she continued. “I prayed so much and played the lottery constantly. I won it. And cried endlessly, felt it was a sign. When Pat was diagnosed, my only wish was to take her. And I refuse to just go with anyone, it has to be special.”
We barely knew each other—we’d only met when Pat died, and we talked briefly on just a few occasions surrounding her memorial celebrations. It made me cry that she would ask me. And it touched me deeply, especially since Pat and I had also talked about going to see a show together and never made it. I gratefully and gushingly accepted Annie’s lavish offer, and when she asked when I could go (I live three hours outside of New York City), I suggested to her that it would be special if we could go around Pat’s March 5th birthday. She loved the idea and made the connections.
As the house lights dimmed, I looked up into the rafters, thinking of the countless sets Pat had helped conceive as a high school and community stage director. Pat lived and breathed theater. She had an artistic engineer’s eye when it came to staging and choreography. Sets and the actors and dancers who moved within them were the structures and moving parts of her life. She immersed herself in world-class performances and brought her vision back to the high school and community productions she directed—plays, musicals and dance theater shows so high-calibre, colleges would bring their students to see them.
I whispered to Annie, “Tonight is for you, Pat,” and we sank back in our seats to enjoy the show.
This night had been the culmination of a day of hospitality on Doug and Annie’s part. They had picked me up from the train station at 11:00 a.m. in a car no less, and had refused to take my fistfuls of cash for tickets to the 9/11 Museum or for lunch afterward. “You’re just like your mother!” I told Doug with exasperation, remembering all the times she refused to be treated and wanted only to treat.
“He’s worse!” Annie said, pointing her thumb sideways at him.
After lunch Doug drove us to Brooklyn, taking me past the apartment in the Heights where I’d lived as a musical theatre writing student at NYU—a masters program his mother had encouraged me to look into. He stopped the car and wanted to know specifically where I had lived. “I need proof that you were here,” he teased.
“See that purplish-pink curtain?” I said, pointing to a tiny window at the top of a narrow, grayish brownstone five-floor walk-up. “That was my studio, the former servant’s quarters of the building. I don’t think they’ve fixed the crack in that window in 16 years. One time it snowed two inches inside the apartment.”
Joyful memories were flooding my heart, but underneath them all was the overriding feeling that I was getting to be with Doug and Annie today— and Pat was not.
It comforted me slightly, but felt even more ironic and sad the more I thought about it, that I was with Pat’s son, and Pat was in heaven with my youngest daughter.
We hung around Doug’s railroad-style apartment for a couple of hours, and I got to meet Lucy, Annie’s feline daughter. Then we drove to a Brooklyn Italian eatery for dinner. “Do you like fish?” Annie said. I nodded. She had already introduced me to farro, an ancient grain, at lunch. “You have to try the Branzino; it’s delicious and very popular right now.
And the grilled octopus. You have to try the grilled octopus.” If she hadn’t been so insistent, its tentacles and suckers may have put me off altogether. But the taste! The octopus was delectable, and the branzino stuffed with vegetables was equally delicious. Again, Doug refused to allow me to pay. “You’ve done so much for our family,” he said softly before sending us off to see the show.
We got back to the apartment after midnight. Doug, an NYPD Lieutenant, had to work early the next day and had already gone to bed. But he had put out a pillow and a sheet and blanket for me to sleep on the couch. We had originally planned for just a day trip, but when the choice was either nosebleed matinee tickets or orchestra seats for the evening show, Annie insisted we go in the evening and I stay the night with them. I felt young again, doing the New York City thing—crashing on someone’s couch.
Annie went to bed, and I made up the sofa and settled in for the night, my thoughts swirling. I took off my glasses and looked, nearsighted, at the blur of blue light coming from the remote control on the seat of the recliner next to the sofa. Pat had slept in it one time, they told me. As the radiator hissed and an above-ground train rumbled by at the end of their street, I thought of her. Was she hovering nearby? Does she know that I’m here? Did she somehow work it out so that I’d be here this weekend, and if so, is there anything she wants me to say or do for them?
I wished desperately, for Annie’s sake, that I could have more adequately filled Pat’s shoes. I kind of wanted to be her for the day. But Pat was stilettos with a dancer’s knock-em-dead figure; I am clogs, with a body soft and plumpish. Pat had a razor-sharp mind; mine is more muddled and I have to write my way to clarity.
The lyrics of the last song of Hamilton echoed in my mind: Let me tell you what I wish I’d known / When I was young and dreamed of glory / You have no control / Who lives or dies or tells your story . . . But when you’re gone who remembers your name? / Who keeps your flame? / Who tells your story? All I could think that she would want me to do was to be myself, to not worry about trying to fill her shoes, but to simply keep the flame of love going for the people she cared most about in this life.
I recalled what a young woman told me her mother had said to her before she died:
“The people who help you after I’m gone? You watch. They are the ones who will become your family.”
I drifted into a deep sleep, the kind of sleep you never have the first night in a new place, let alone on somebody’s couch. But this didn’t feel new, exactly. More like familiar. Familiar like familia, when the people you’re with are truly becoming family.