On January 20, 2006, at age 78, she made history by being the first popular singer to have a solo concert at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. She was a sensation on Broadway when she was younger, winning many awards including an Emmy for her role in the original The Music Man. She had the voice, looks, and acting skill of a star. But after years of success, her career faded. She withdrew from public performances as she struggled with alcohol, obesity, and depression. In time, a close friend and collaborator convinced her she still had a great gift to share with audiences. She began performing in public again, which led to that night at the Met.
When Barbara Cook walked on stage that night, she got a standing ovation.
The second song she sang was particularly poignant given what she’d been through. It was from a 1973 Broadway musical, “Seesaw:”
It’s not how you go, it’s how you land.
Can out-run the favorite, all he needs is the guts.
Your final return will not diminish
And you can be the cream of the crop;
And you’re gonna finish on top.
After reading a rave review of the concert album, I bought a copy and have grown to love this song. It has that spunky, sassy, celebratory spirit of so many Broadway songs, and she is amazing. “It’s Not Where You Start” begins playing in my head some days, and the spirit of it makes me smile and swagger.
Barbara Cook died in 2017, beloved by her colleagues and fans not only for her many gifts but also for her comeback. If life’s about “how you finish,” she finished her life “on top.”
But I’ve been reflecting on the theme of the song. I find myself thinking of all the people I’ve known over the years in my personal life, ministry, and hospice work, and ask myself: Is it always true? Is “where you finish” the most important measure of your life?
Bob was a member of the first congregation I served in Santa Paula. He was a big guy and full of life. He was a proud Marine who had been in some of the most intense battles in the Pacific and achieved the rank of captain. He’d then made a career in the fruit packing business and raised six children with his wife Jean. We rented a house just one door away from Bob and Jean, and grew to be close friends, often sharing wine, crackers and cheese on our front porches and vacationing together. He took delight in needling me. Sometimes when I’d call young people to come forward for a children’s sermon, he’d walk up with them and sit on the steps, staring at me with a deadpan gaze. After retirement he became a Hospice volunteer and told me it was the most meaningful thing he’d ever done. I loved the man.
After we left Santa Paula for Washington state in 1985, we stayed close. Moving back to Santa Barbara in 1992 meant we were only an hour away from Santa Paula, which enabled us to spend time together once again.
Bob became ill in 2005. In his last months he was in a nursing home with dementia. The dementia released some of the long-suppressed traumatic memories of the war, and Bob’s anger and confusion was a serious challenge for staff and guests. He died early in 2006.
I think of the life of my dear friend Bob, and ask: Is it always about how we “finish”?
My answer: No. Bob’s life was full of hard work, responsibilities, sacrifice, service, joy, and love. What he went through in the last few months does not define him or take away all he did.
I can think of many people I’ve known who have died in nursing homes and car accidents, from heart attacks and strokes. They did not have a chance to complete their journey as they would have liked. But their end doesn’t define their life.
We long for perfect, inspiring endings in movies, television series, musical pieces, novels, careers, and personal stories. But real life doesn’t always supply them.
I am going to keep on listening to Barbara Cook sing “It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.” I will always be inspired by her story and legacy. I am also continually inspired by the life of my friend Bob.
I want to live with “guts” and “grit.” Yet I know I cannot be guaranteed an ideal conclusion to my life. What I do know is that I can trust the grace of God, which is far greater than my expectations.
Barbara Cook singing “It’s Not Where You Start” in Melbourne. The picture quality is grainy, but her spirit shines: