On the same day our country marked the milestone of more than 400,000 people dead from COVID, we were finally able to collectively acknowledge and grieve our loss. President-Elect Biden reminded us, “To heal we must remember. . . . It is important we do that as a nation. That’s why we are here today.”
In the brief space between sundown and dusk, the simple and somber pre-inauguration memorial was electrifying. Lori Marie Key, a Detroit nurse, sang “Amazing Grace”—the same as she did on her shifts tending COVID patients to lift spirits amid all the heartbreak. Gospel singer Yolanda Adams then sang Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah.” Along the entire length of the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool, 400 light pillars—each representing 1,000 lives lost—began to glow as darkness descended. The camera slowly zoomed out to reveal the illuminated waterway, Abraham Lincoln frozen in marble and time, the Potomac beyond.
“In Hebrew, the word hallelujah means to rejoice in praising God,” I soon learned from Kyson Parks’s The Origin and History of the Song “Hallelujah,” by Leonard Cohen. Parks continues:
It is a bitter lament about love and loss . . . “Hallelujah,” the song teaches us, is a refrain worthy of times of celebration, of mourning, of regret, of catharsis, and reconciliation. Cohen’s song tells a story of broken love, true love remembered and mourned, guilt, penance, and of finding peace in the vicissitudes of brokenness.
How fitting for what we have been through. In our nation’s capital, the last line of the song—“It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah” soared over the Reflecting Pool as the lights came up.
For some of us, Leonard Cohen’s song marked the beginning as well as the end of Trump’s presidency. On the first Saturday Night Live after the 2016 election, Kate McKinnon–who had played Hillary Clinton throughout SNL’s 2016 campaign skits–performed it for SNL’s Cold Open.
When McKinnon finished, she turned to the audience as Hillary and said, “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
Tomorrow Joe Biden and Kamala Harris will be sworn in as our new President and Vice President.