By Natalie Anne Knowlton
I saw Hamilton off-Broadway a week before Alli Gerkman lost her battle with cancer.
What a fight.
I remember when the production came through Denver a few years ago; I remember her loving it. Not long after, we were asked to include a quote from a theatrical or musical bit in our organization’s 2016 annual report. She immediately picked a quote from Lin-Manuel Miranda’s score:
“The plan is to fan this spark into a flame.”
What a choice.
I said to her, then, “alright one-upper” as I searched the internet for some — any — generic quote about something that could possibly be construed in any way to be relevant to anything I was working on.
That was Alli — always strong in conviction. That was (and will forever be) me — always searching beside her.
What a friend.
That quote, for her, was so appropriate. You see … Gerkmania as I called her affectionately and to whom I addressed all her packages (as CEO of Gerkmania Adventures, of course) … well … she had an incendiary soul, the spirit of a fire starter.
I’ve watched her on countless occasions set entire rooms ablaze. If you’re reading this, you likely have, too. Her laugh alone lit up a crowd, a fact to which anyone who ever met her would attest. She fueled entire movements and kindled inspiration, in any of us, in all of us. Her courage in life ignited the hearts and minds of those around her. Her determination in the face of death burned with the fiercest intensity.
Nobody burned as bright as Alli, as red-hot blue as Alli. And nobody ever will.
What a loss.
My grandfather was a fire and brimstone preacher.
But there are things that the homilies and hymns won’t teach ya.
My mother was a genius; my father commanded respect.
When they died they left no instructions, just a legacy to protect.
Death doesn’t discriminate, between the sinners and the saints.
It takes and it takes and it takes.
And we keep living anyway.
We rise and we fall and we break, and we make our mistakes.
And if there’s a reason I’m still alive, when everyone who loves me has died —
I’m willing to wait for it.
There’s no question about it.
Life took indiscriminately on this one. It stole with reckless abandon. It plundered with wanton disregard for the potential, the promise, and the power of the soul it took from us.
Yet. Here we are.
When Alli died, she left no instructions for most of us who knew her, who learned from her, and who loved her. We are on our own to understand how to move forward, how to make sense of this.
Every single one of you is going to die. Actually cease to exist. And you won’t have a choice in how or when. And you should sit with that. Because that reveals a far more powerful truth. You are alive. And while you almost certainly will have no say in how you die, you do get to choose in every single moment of this beautiful, beautiful life, just how you will live.
But Alli didn’t get this entirely right. This would not be the first time in the last decade that I’ve said this about something she’s put before me. I never won those arguments then.
But I will win this one now.
You do not cease to exist when you die, Alli Gerkman. You do not get to cease to exist when you die, Alli. We’d give you nearly anything, but we will not give you that.
Yes, it is our responsibility to move forward (we accept). Yes, it is up to us whether to even try to make sense of this (we’ll see; it will be hard). But, Alli, you forget about that spark, that flame, that fire you left for us.
But we didn’t forget.
We won’t forget.
How could we forget.
We are left without Alli, but we are left with a mission in her absence. Something to do; something to keep us busy. This is important. Listen up.
We must keep the flames of her fiery spirit alive. We must carry them until we cannot carry ourselves. This is where the real work begins. Pay attention.
We must throw those embers into the sky, arms wide and faces wet. We must intend for them a flight, as far as the wild winds will carry, over land and across the seas. We must hope and wish for them to land in new places, in different times, in other hearts — and once there, to ignite. We must plan for and execute on a conflagration the likes of which people have never seen and in which they could never resist living.
From the ashes new life arises. But this fire … we will not see this fire smolder. We cannot see this fire smolder.
We will keep your spark burning strong, Alli Gerkman. That is your legacy. And it is ours to protect.