Hamilton To-Go

Last spring we were in the throes of my mother’s Stage IV lymphoma, the chemotherapy, hamiltonthe drug deliveries to the house, the enormous uncertainties ahead.

“Are you in pain?” doctor asked her.

“What do you mean by pain?” Mama asked rhetorically. “Does boiling lava in my leg count as pain?” She asked that not sarcastically, but with real curiosity. Occasionally she was okay-ish but that left leg was ever the seat of her troubles. The swelling in her pelvic lymph nodes created a blockage in her leg. The lymph fluid then settled in the leg creating a cesspool of infection. And pain. She spent two different hospital stays, one three days, the second twelve days, trying to get that infection in her leg under control. At times the swelling in her leg was shocking. It was hard to find clothes she could get on. Normal underwear was unthinkable.

“Can you give me a one-to-ten number for your pain?”

I mentally urged her to give a high number so that we could get the big drugs. Mama was always stoic, seemed to somehow think that suffering made her a better person.

“Sometimes it’s not so bad and then sometimes it’s very bad. Right now? Seven-and-a-half.” She grimaced and grabbed the chair. The pain came in actual attacks. “Maybe eight.”

I sighed. Drugs would surely be forthcoming.

“Have you heard about the musical Hamilton?” she asked a minute later, even before the doctor could whip out the prescription pad. “It’s a rap musical based on the life of Alexander Hamilton. And it’s really good.”

She could work Hamilton into any conversation. Snack time. Bathroom time. Late night conversation. For weeks, months, it was all Hamilton all the time.

You see we are descendants of Alexander Hamilton. He was her grandfather four greats back. Lots of people like to claim him, but we’ve got the genealogy to prove it. His is the ultimate rags to riches story, and better than riches, he was crucial in founding our country. He was secretary to George Washington at 22. Founder of our banking system, Secretary of Treasury, and all this after being born out of wedlock in the Caribbean, orphaned, coming alone to the US at 14.

It is almost as if, as descendant, Mama wanted partial credit for it. And if he could accomplish that from nothing surely she couldn’t complain about obstacles. Like a little lymphoma. At Christmas I got her a new book about Hamilton. Of course she had read the Ron Chernow biography which inspires the hip-hop musical.

On You Tube one evening I found for her an early clip of creator Lin-Manuel Miranda performing what became the opening number at the White House for President Obama.

Mama sat rapt before my laptop. As a ballet teacher and choreographer she was always impressed by someone who can create from the ground up.

“Again,” she said.

We watched it four times in a row.

“I want to see more,” she said. The show was still in previews last spring. I found her a couple other brief clips, plus interviews with Lin-Manuel Miranda and author Ron Chernow.

“More please,” she said.

“Mama,” I said, “they aren’t going to let us watch the whole thing on You Tube.” So I found her a clip of Miranda and his father singing at Miranda’s wedding and long clips from Miranda’s earlier Tony-winning show In The Heights.

Sometimes it was tiresome, her obsession. A nice lady from church would bring over a pork roast and all Mama would talk about was a New York play no one else in Napa had yet even heard of.

But in another way it was easy to understand.

Should she think about Hamilton? Or think about dying?

Easy choice.

Tickets to the Broadway version went on sale late last spring. I hawed and I hemmed. There was nothing she would enjoy more. I picked October 3, a Saturday matinee. Four tickets. Purchased the day they went on sale. Far enough out to celebrate a recovery. Not so far out as to lose the original cast.

Mama was amazingly blasé when I told her.

Does she think she won’t make it?

Later, during ever more viewings of the You Tube clip, I asked if that was the reason. “Oh I’ll make it,” she said. “I just figured you would finagle a way.”

That made me smile. But later her resolve faltered. The sicker she got, the farther away October in New York became. “Do you think my legs will make it?”

“We’ll just have to see,” I said.

Mama, Daddy, and the five of us, 18 days before she died.

Mama, Daddy, and the five of us, June 28, 1015, 18 days before Mama died.


My father, daughter, two sisters, and I went to New York the first weekend in October. We had a full agenda for the short weekend. Chocolates at Teuscher. Lighting a candle for Mama at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Top of the Rock, the 9/11 Memorial, and of course the centerpiece of the trip was Hamilton.

Watching the opening number on the Grammys through tears last night brought all of this back. It is a spectacular show, original in every way and of course won the Grammy for best musical theater album.

On October third at the Richard Rogers Theatre, everyone in the theater felt lucky to be there. I never buy merchandise, but made an exception that day for a red T-shirt with a big star on it.

Already tickets were being scalped for hundreds of dollars over face value. During intermission I chatted briefly with a man seated nearby. “When did you get your tickets?” he asked me.

“The day they went on sale.”

“And you’re from California? How in the world did you know to buy tickets the day they went on sale?”

“My mother told me about the show.”

About Karen Ray

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