Command Performance

Photo by Krzysztof Chmielewski

First we removed our shoes. We aligned them neatly along the hallway wall, applying meaningless order to the moment. Then we gave our apologetic knock.

A friend of our dying friend invited us into the stillness. A few other guests and family members were already gathered in the one-bedroom Manhattan apartment, occasionally pausing from their white-noise whispers to sip wine or sample the plump grapes and mold-marbled cheeses.

All the while, she lay in a hospice bed fifteen feet away, on the other side of the cumulus-white wall. Her illness had overshadowed her fifty-fourth birthday a few weeks ago, after which doctors informed her that nothing more could be done. A decade of consults and chemo and surgery and radiation and living from drug trial to drug trial, back to chemo, back to radiation, and now there was nothing more.

Our friend reeled, then regained her balance. She made plans. A trip to the ocean. A fine meal. And music! An opera, perhaps, with soaring arias conveying all of humanity’s wonder and woe.

Yes. Live music, she said, in command as always.

But cancer disrupted once more. When she became too weak to leave her apartment, one of the friends who had been caring for her struck upon an alternative plan.

So:

Into this apartment of awkward murmurs came two more shoeless people: a petite woman with long, dark hair and a tall man carrying a small black case. Larisa and Josh, friends of a friend of our shared friend.

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.

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. 

Published in the September 2019 issue: 

Dan Barry is a longtime reporter and columnist for the New York Times and the author of several books, including This Land: America Lost and Found (2018). Most recently, he has worked as a senior story editor on “The Weekly” television program for the Times.

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