Larisa Martinez is a gifted soprano who routinely performs before tens of thousands—often with the tenor Andrea Bocelli—but a nagging cold tonight had thwarted her plans to honor a request to sing our friend’s favorite, “Ave Maria.” Joshua Bell is a world-renowned classical violinist who had come directly from the airport after returning from another command performance.
Mr. Bell opened the case and removed a Stradivarius violin. Then, when the time was right, he crossed the divide into the bedroom and introduced himself as Josh.
“They said you like music, so,” he said. “We live in the neighborhood. We thought we’d stop by.”
He tuned his instrument with a few string plucks, and explained that he’d like to play something for her. Perhaps a solo from Thaïs, by Jules Massenet.
The opera, from 1894, tells the story of a monk who attempts to convert a courtesan to Christianity, only to realize that she is the purer soul, and he the one in need of salvation. The violin solo, “Méditation,” is performed between scenes, entr’acte.
The violinist stood at the foot of the bed. To his right sat Larisa, his fiancée; to his left, a display of children’s get-well drawings. He took a step back, as if in recognition of the power in his hands. He raised his priceless instrument, and it began.
We on the other side of the wall sat transfixed. Through the sliding door’s clouded window pane, we could see the silhouette of the violin, the bow arcing up and across, the slight sway of man at one with ethereal sound.
The music seemed to weep as it soothed, summoning all fifty-four years of a life.
It is common to frame a cancer diagnosis in martial terms. Battling cancer; fighting cancer; the war on cancer. It is common, but wrong, the implication being that anything short of survival amounts to personal failure. Or surrender.
Summoning her working-class Rust Belt grit, our friend met her illness with a resolve so airtight that few of her work colleagues knew she had cancer. Year after year, she quietly endured the exhaustion and neuropathy, among other insults, yet continued to seize her days. She became one of the most respected editors in journalism, known for her literary ear and fierce demands that proper voice be given to the unseen and unheard. But she also made sure to resist the newsroom’s never-ending gravitational pull; to have a private life removed from deadlines. She indulged her exquisite tastes in food and travel, fashion and music, and pampered a toy poodle she named Simone, after the one and only Nina, the high priestess of soul.
Now here was her entr’acte.
The caress of strings transported us to someplace well beyond this Chelsea apartment. We returned only when Josh summoned the last sorrowful-sweet note and raised his bow. In the ensuing silence, all was understood—a collective surrender to the mysteries.
The violinist and the soprano left as quietly as they had arrived. We followed soon after, slipping back into our shoes and leaving our dear friend in her sacred space.