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How Leonard Cohen Helped Us After Losing Our Son To Heroin

A month ago I read an article in The New York Times by Michael Paulson, ‘Hamilton’ and Heartache: Living the Unimaginable. It told the story of Oskar Eustis, director of the Public Theater in New York City, who lost his sixteen-year-old-son Jack two years ago. Part of the article read:

“An MP3 arrived by email, hours after Jack’s death. It came from Lin-Manuel Miranda, a new arrival to the Public fold. It was a demo recording of “It’s Quiet Uptown,” the song from “Hamilton” describing Alexander Hamilton, and his wife, Eliza, as they grieve the death of their 19-year-old son, Philip:

‘There are moments that the words don’t reach

There is suffering too terrible to name

You hold your child as tight as you can

And push away the unimaginable

The moments when you’re in so deep

It feels easier to just swim down.’

“There is nothing you can say,’ Mr. Miranda recalled thinking. “And yet, I had a song about this. So I wrote to him saying, ‘If this is useful, then lean on it, and, if not, delete this email.’”

“Mr. Eustis and his wife found it useful. “Every line of ‘Quiet Uptown’ feels like it’s exactly correct to my experience,” Mr. Eustis said. “It was the only music we listened to for a long time, and we listened to it every day, and it became a key thing for the two of us.”

Earlier this fall my wife, Margot, and I had the sublime opportunity go to “Hamilton”. We’d listened to the recording beforehand to familiarize ourselves with the show. We remained unprepared, however, as “It’s Quiet Uptown” and the performance surrounding it moved us to tears. Like Alexander Hamilton, like Oskar Eustis, we have experienced “the suffering too terrible to name”, the death of our son, William just after he turned 24. We’ve had to “push away the unimaginable”, we know the just wanting to “swim down.” I reacted the way Oskar Eustis and his wife did, listening to the same music every day, listening to it for a long time.

In the early afternoon of December 2nd, 2012, Margot, our daughter Elizabeth Hope, and I were squeezed into a small hospital room around the bedside of our son and brother William. We’d spent the prior six weeks at his bedside, hoping for a miracle recovery; a brain deprived of oxygen after his heart had stopped beating for too long. His heartbeat was restored by EMS personnel. Over the course of those six weeks, however, his damaged brain continued to wither. His heart labored on as other body systems began to suffer from the stress they’d endured. The end imminent, William was on morphine to guarantee he would suffer no pain. The irony that a morphine derivative, heroin, had initially caused William’s heart to stop beating long enough to set off the sequence which would end with his imminent death was not lost on us.

We held William, caressed him and kissed him until he left us. Moments later Elizabeth pulled out her cell phone, laid it near William’s head and played a song. We’d played lots of music for William during those six weeks, especially anything by his favorite, Stevie Ray Vaughn. Sometimes we’d sung to him, including “Happy Birthday” on November 18th, toward the end of the ordeal, as he turned 24.

The song was new to me, Antony and the Johnsons’ “Thank You For Your Love.” 

I heard it and asked Elizabeth who the artist was and if she would play it again. When we arrived home I found the song on You Tube and began playing it repeatedly. 

 I explored a bit and came across Antony’s cover of Leonard Cohen’s “If It Be Your Will”. Instantly an old favorite, Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” compelled me. I listened to it over and over and over, lying in bed with my laptop, listening first to a gravelly Leonard Cohen himself singing it, then testing the renditions of all the artists I could find. Sampling them all to distinguish comforting subtleties. Listening obsessively, interrupted only by sporadic returns to “Thank You For Your Love.” Ultimately soothed by repetitions of K.D. Laing’s rich offering, my ritual continued in the two weeks leading up to William’s memorial service.

I have no memory of when the rite tapered off. I do know that I come back to the music when I need to, even finding something about the hateful embrace of heroin in all of Cohen’s lyric, most especially: “… love is not a victory march. It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah.”

Oskar Eustis’s description of his experience had, and has, a visceral similarity. “For me, the beautiful thing about ‘Quiet Uptown’ is, it serves a ritualistic function — it takes us into the grief, and then it takes us out of it,” Mr. Eustis said. “And there’s nothing, there’s no other ritual that I know of, that can do that for me.”

For me the music takes me back to that moment when hope for William flickered, even though I knew he was gone. Death arrived before hope’s exit. As Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote, “We push away what we can never understand, we push away the unimaginable.” Somehow the chance to say, “Thank you for your love,” the celebration inherent in the word “Hallelujah” gets me into and out of, or at least a bit further removed from, the grief that is always a part of me.

For four years now a prolonged six-week anniversary of events darkens even more the fall season of gathering darkness. This year the struggle and the ritual have been heightened by Leonard Cohen’s death. “Hallelujah” has sprung forth from Kate McKinnon, a children’s choir, Facebook posts in honor of Leonard Cohen. Is it quiet now where we live uptown on New York’s Upper West Side? At the least, perhaps calmed by Lin-Manuel Miranda’s magnificently comprehending song and an unknown, now discovered bond with Oskar Eustis.

This November 18th there will be a “Hallelujah” for our lost boy/man, as Elizabeth, Margot, and I continue “working through the unimaginable”, sorely missing our moment to sing “Happy Birthday” to William.   

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