Broadway's Danny Burstein grapples with the loss of wife Rebecca Luker in devastating essay: 'There is a void'
Broadway actor Danny Burstein published a gut-wrenching personal essay on Wednesday in The Hollywood Reporter in response to the death of his wife, Rebecca Luker, who died at the age of 59 in December due to complications with ALS.
"There is a void," Burstein writes. "Where once there was sunlight. There is a void. Where once there was a marriage. There is a void. There is now an empty, dark abyss that has taken the place of the warm, comforting glow of the sun, a bridge over which love crossed freely. And I can't seem to cross over the darkness. I want to step over it, leap over it. I feel she wants me to. But I'm not prepared, I'm not equipped. It seems impossible."
Luker announced in February 2020 that she was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, and she died 13 months after her official diagnosis. A star of numerous stage productions, including Tony-nominated performances in Mary Poppins and The Music Man, Luker enjoyed 20 years of marriage with Burstein, an actor from the recent production of Moulin Rouge.
Burstein previously submitted an op-ed essay for THR about the couple's struggles with COVID-19, which left him hospitalized, though he and Luker eventually recovered. "When we first started dating people would say to me, 'YOU'RE dating Rebecca Luker?' " he now writes. "I knew what they meant, even if it stung. She was always appalled by those remarks because she would tell me that she was the lucky one in the relationship. Not true. I was."
The actor recalls Luker's journey to the Broadway stage, her "encyclopedic mind" when it came to political debate, and her operatic soprano voice. "When I described her singing, I used to say, 'She opens her mouth and her heart falls out.' That's exactly how it felt," he recalls. "I know of no other singer who's had that same effect on me. She had some innate connection to her soul when she sang that made the listener instantly feel the deepest emotions. It made you understand why poets wrote about purity and beauty. It was simply that obvious. That perfect. That special. That connected." Burstein remembers Luker for her "overwhelming acceptance of who I was, warts and all," and her ability to be "completely herself at every moment."
They discovered Luker's condition after she tripped running for the bus. Her foot and ankle kept getting worse and spinal stenosis surgery didn't fix it. Her doctor told her after that ALS was a possibility.
"Two weeks before she passed she finally began to talk about her own death and asked how it might happen. She'd been in such denial until then," according to Burstein. "She spoke with her doctor and rejected his offer of a tracheotomy because she knew it would mean that she would never speak or swallow again. She was extremely weak but told him that she didn't want to live attached to a machine that way. She told him, 'If I don't have my voice, I don't know who I am. My voice is everything I am. I'll take my chances.' I broke down sobbing next to her when she said that. I've never witnessed anything so brave in my life."
ALS eventually took her voice. Burstein remembers in detail how Luker lay in a hospital bed on a respirator as he spoke to her during her final hours. "When she was dying in the hospital I told her everything I wanted to say to her," he writes. "Her eyes were halfway closed, pupils were dilated but I held them open and spoke to her intently. I told her that she'd been the most amazing wife, a wonderful mother to our sons, and that she'd left the world a better place because of her music and her beauty. She heard me. I know she did. Her eyes focused directly on me. She tried to respond as tears ran down my face and she did manage to acknowledge what I'd said with a sudden push of breath from the very back of her throat — which must have taken every ounce of strength she had."
"She passed away about an hour and a half later," he continues. "I wept like a baby, holding her. They asked me if I wanted to close her eyes and I did. She was my wife, I was going to do everything I could for her while they allowed me to stay. I removed the fucking respirator that she'd become attached to for the last two months, freed her of that and petted her beautiful face and hair. I left the hospital numb and remain so."
Read Burstein's full essay on THR.