Lately the sun has burned furiously before falling. One has to look away as it passes out of sight.
But then sunset simmers, its bright traces receding in a thinning plume beyond the tree line. Bright nursery colors bubble into a reduction of deep rose and bruised plum. Clusters of geese shadowed in sheer black dot the snowy marsh like musical notes.
I only recently discovered that the last book my husband Jim read in the home where he died was the same thick biography of Alexander Hamilton that Lin-Manuel Miranda had picked up for a vacation trip . . . with epic musical results.
As time has passed since Jim’s spring solstice death, there seems so much on which to fill him in: “Now it’s a hip-hop musical!” I exclaim, holding the book up to him in the fashion of an Executive Order (by an executive whose identity he would find yet more implausible). He tilts his head and nods, smiling, as he runs through the immense internal musical catalogue he had amassed by the time his heart stopped beating. Of course, he thinks, what a wonderful idea.
I never see myself visiting Jim on his side of the veil, but picture him back in this one–or, less frequently, watching over us in that thin in-between space in which one can “catch a glimpse of,” or even lead a soldier’s chorus from, the other side. (“My love, I’ll see you on the other side,” Hamilton tells his wife, who for the half-century she outlives him can only catch a glimpse of him in the eyes of the living.)
Perhaps we can only imagine the imaginable.
The same line appears in three songs in Hamilton, but never in the same simile’s company.
First, scrappy young Alexander Hamilton reflects: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory. . . . Is it like a beat with no melody?”
Hamilton is speaking of his own death: he does not know what metaphor will capture it. But even then he had experienced so much death–of the mother who loved him, of his countrymen and women in the Leeward Islands hurricane–that he did not need to imagine it, any more than I now need to imagine my husband’s; it is well beyond simile, all too vivid and concrete.
Later, after Hamilton has experienced yet more death in war, and the means of his own fate, if imminent, seems overwhelmingly likely to be of a piece with fellow soldiers’, Manuel dispenses with metaphor, and the line stands unadorned: “I imagine death so much it feels more like a memory…”
But he endured. He not only was alive–not drowned, not slain in battle–but survived his son, to endure what is to every parent the indescribable but all-too imaginable unimaginable.
Finally, within the space of a bullet fired ten paces away, Hamilton realizes not only what the mechanism of his own death will be, but that his first simile was faulty; he understands that after all “There is no beat, no melody.”
My husband died in our Hamilton-era home. In his last hours, I felt his immense intelligence, including his vast knowledge of music and melody, disappear into the vastness outside his body. Even then his heart kept beating until it slowed to a stop as the new spring began showering its own rain of melody.
Love is both the song and after.