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GRIEF, JOY, ACTIVISM, AND HAMILTON by Donny Levit

The Cervantes Family reflect on the death of one child and the adoption of another


The Cervantes family has lived an odyssey: mourning the loss of their daughter and celebrating her life; becoming vital activists for the epilepsy community; and deciding to become adoptive parents. Throughout all of this, actor Miguel Cervantes has performed the title role of Hamilton over 1,700 times – that’s more times than Lin-Manuel Miranda himself. And the couple has the incredible gift of making the unspeakable…speakable.


Miguel and Kelly Cervantes moved to Maplewood in 2013 for reasons similar to many New York City residents, looking for their next step. “Our two-bedroom apartment in Astoria was amazing,” says Miguel. But then their son, Jackson, started walking, and the family was quickly outgrowing their Queens home.


Kelly, who at the time was the director of events at Riverpark in Manhattan, recalls the frenetic “only-in-New York” street exchanges of their son as her husband headed out to his acting job at night. “Miguel would be with Jackson during the day,” says Kelly. “I was working during the day and we would literally hand him off on the side of the street as one of us was about to get on the subway.”


“A friend of mine had moved to South Orange. I didn’t know what that meant. I thought it was way out in the country,” recalls Miguel. “We found a little house by the high school and it was perfect […] All of a sudden we were little suburban commuters and it was awesome.” In 2015, Kelly gave birth to their daughter Adelaide. Miguel would take the train into the city at night as Kelly headed home. “Our trains literally passed each other,” he says.


Before there was Hamilton, Miguel performed in Broadway productions including American Idiot and If/Then. He struggled with the chaotic schedule that prevented him from spending time with his family. Meanwhile, Kelly’s career had blossomed, allowing him to consider spending time at home on a more regular basis.


“I was playing the guitar and singing for kids [in town] and I started a little baseball business. I thought that maybe I’d focus more on TV and film,” says Miguel. “I used to joke that maybe I’m done [with theater] unless Lin calls to offer me Hamilton.”


Hamilton
Miquel Cervantes performs the role of Hamilton full time on Broadway.

Miguel received an invitation to audition and got the job. The family moved to Chicago where he would perform the role in the production of Hamilton for three-and-a-half years. He currently performs it on Broadway. And while his casting was a life-altering event, a more personal turn of events involving their daughter would change the course of the Cervantes family forever.


The Chicago production of Hamilton opened in the fall of 2016. “They were interested in creating that company in very much the same way they created the Broadway company,” he says. “They took a lot of care picking all the people.”


Just a week before the casting announcement, their daughter Adelaide was diagnosed with epilepsy. “She was diagnosed with infantile spasms, which is a pretty devastating form of pediatric epilepsy,” says Kelly. “A lot of times, they can get a first round of treatment and can go on to live a normal life. But Adelaide already had low muscle tone and she was already receiving early intervention services. We knew that something wasn’t right. And she did not respond to treatments. They helped but they did not control it. We witnessed her having a major regression.”


Adelaide’s situation grew more dire. “I was regularly resuscitating her with an ambu bag because just to go to the hospital every time she had to be resuscitated was [a lot]…so I learned how to do it at home,” says Kelly. “Even as I’m saying these words to you now, I’m realizing how bizarre and crazy and traumatic it sounds. But when you’re in it, you’re just in it. There’s no other choice.”


“I felt guilty because I was able to go into someplace and almost turn off that whole part of my life even though – spoiler alert – Hamilton’s child dies in the show,” says Miguel. “Being able to step into someone else’s shoes for two and a half hours and detach from that was actually much more therapeutic. But Kelly didn’t get to have that.”


CURE
Kelly serves as chair of the board of directors of Citizens United for Reasearch in Epilepsy (CURE) to help leverage their platform and story to help other families.

"I resented him that he got to leave the house and that he got to have this career,” says Kelly. “And so one of the ways that I figured out that I could still have an identity and a life outside of our home was through volunteering.”


By coincidence, Citizens United for Research in Epilepsy (CURE) is headquartered in Chicago.


“They embraced us,” she says. “Miguel and I realized pretty quickly that the science was not going to catch up to Adelaide in the way that we hoped it would. But maybe we could leverage our platform and our story so that Adelaide’s experience didn’t have to be in vain, that it could maybe help another family down the road. And so that became sort of my passion.” Today, Kelly serves as chair of the organization’s board of directors.


On October 12, 2019 – just days shy of her fourth birthday – Adelaide died. “The machines are off. Her bed is empty. The quiet is deafening,” wrote Kelly in an Instagram post announcing the news.


Ask Miguel and Kelly what they remember about their daughter Adelaide, and they immediately recall that she was in love with the music of Frank Sinatra. “She loved to play with her brother. She was feisty, she had her own personality, and her life wasn’t entirely tragic,” says Kelly.

Adelaide
Adelaide passed away on October 12, 2019 - just days before her fourth birthday.

“The week they called me to go to Broadway was the same week after Adelaide died,” says Miguel.


After a successful run performing Hamilton in Chicago, Miguel was asked to take over the role full-time on Broadway. The family returned to Maplewood. “Now we were a family of three, grieving our fourth and moving back to New York. The sad and really tragic part of Adelaide’s death is that our life was just unbelievably easier. We didn’t have to go through special security on our airport trips [anymore]. We traveled like a rock band with all of [Adelaide’s] equipment,” says Miguel.


Jackson Cervantes is about to finish fifth grade at Tuscan Elementary School. “He has more empathy in his pinky finger than I think most people have in their entire bodies,” Kelly says of their son. “At the age of four or five, he could walk into a room and he would get a sense for it and sort of mold himself to fit the atmosphere of the room.”


“When we moved back [to Maplewood], we created a new bond. Our little threesome had this beautiful rhythm. We were now sort of finding this really amazing joy and spending time together in a peaceful way that we weren’t really able to do before,” says Miguel. “And then we said, ‘Yeah, let’s mess that up.’”


Because of the unknowns involving the genetics of Adelaide’s epilepsy, Kelly and Miguel decided they would not have another biological child. And while they were considering adopting a child from Colombia, another opportunity came up a bit closer to home. “Technically, she’s my grand-niece,” says Miguel. “We’re still finalizing the adoption.” The couple has been navigating the complicated logistics of the adoption system. On November 5, 2021, the Cervantes family brought home Anessa, who is now four years old. “She brought sunshine and laughter back into our lives,” says Kelly.


According to both Kelly and Miguel, Anessa immediately gravitated towards Jackson. “He loves being a big brother. She’s a pistol but he rolls with it,” says Kelly. “I mean, there’s a seven-year age difference, but he meets her where she is and they figure out ways to play together. They absolutely love each other and annoy each other. They fight as if they have been siblings from the beginning and it’s wild and beautiful.”


While Miguel continues to perform on Broadway, Kelly is readying her book, titled Normal Broken: The Grief Companion for When It’s Time to Heal but You’re Not Sure You Want To. The release date is slated for November 7, 2023.


Kelly recalls attending a grief retreat in South Jersey with mothers who had lost their children. “We were sitting out on the back deck and dancing to Backstreet Boys and Bell Biv DeVoe and it was the first time that most of us had ever just completely let go and laughed – we didn’t feel like we were allowed to do that. We were normal, broken. It was normal to be broken, which is where the title of the book comes from.”


Miguel and Kelly make a point that they grieved very differently. “One thing that did help me more than anything was writing my blog (kellycervantes.com/blog). And so once a week, I would sit there and process one small aspect of my grief that I was dealing with by writing,” she says.


“I didn’t want people to come up to me. I had my time walking the dog and I would sort of just break down crying and pick up some poop. Those are the moments when I found my peace,” says Miguel.


“I decided that I wanted to write a book about grief, but something that was not a guide. Grief guides feel very prescriptive to me, and grief is not linear. I don’t think any two people travel grief the same way even if they are grieving something very similar,” says Kelly. “I feel like there’s this desire for grief to be comparative – that losing a child is considered the holy grail of grief. I just sort of call b.s. on that. I think that your loss is your loss and you cannot compare that to anybody else’s.”


While it’s unclear when Miguel will finish his time performing in Hamilton, he recognizes that the experience has been a backdrop for his family’s odyssey.


“Hamilton is such a legacy. Its theme is about leaving,” says Miguel. “What are people going to say when you’re gone? And I think with CURE Epilepsy […] hopefully something we do from now until we die will help some family. Now there’s this book that has our own personal life Kelly has created that may change people’s lives. I hope this is our legacy.”


For book information and to follow Kelly’s blog, visit kellycervantes.com. And listen to Kelly’s “Seizing Life, a CURE Epilepsy podcast” at cureepilepsy.org/seizing-life/welcome-to-seizing-life.


Donny Levit is a writer and Maplewood resident. He is the author of Rock n’ Roll Lies, 10 Stories. Check out his radio shows on Instagram: @undertheinfluenceradio, @newishradio, @kindofpoolradio.

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