There is no more cathartic remedy for hard times than a good song. Even if it has to be from at least six feet away.
Katherine Rushfirth, a nurse midwife from Lynn, was forced into home quarantine late last month after a work exposure to COVID-19 at Massachusetts General Hospital. She had to stay in isolation, even from her husband Jared and her 5-month-old son Henry, while waiting for her test results.
“It’s not the way I imagined my life with my baby would be,” Rushfirth said. “It just feels like the rug’s been pulled out from everything.”
Mo Masterson Santamaria of Lincoln, Rushfirth’s friend since high school, heard the news and felt she had to do something to brighten Rushfirth’s day. She said that as a mom herself, she saw the irony of her friend being separated from her own child after helping other women have theirs.
“She’s a warrior and she’s still continuing to go back into the fray,” Santamaria said. “Babies are still born during pandemics.”
Soon after, she made a large “THANK YOU” sign with her kids and recruited her childhood friend Anna Williams and her fiancé Misha Veselov of Lawrence to play a surprise string concert for Rushfirth outside her home.
She explained the plan to Rushfirth’s neighbor Peter Cipriano, who let the musicians park in his driveway. With Williams, Veselov, and Cipriano ready with violin, cello, and camera, Rushfirth stepped out onto her porch. The duo began with the Leonard Cohen staple “Hallelujah.”
“It was so overwhelming, the act of kindness,” Rushfirth said. “Mo and I, we’ve known each other since we were 15 … just the power of that friendship. I felt like I was coping, I was pretty stoic, but then I couldn’t stop crying.”
Williams and Veselov said the concert meant a lot to them, too.
“Probably more than [Katherine] realizes, it was really moving for us to be able to contribute that tiny moment,” Williams said.
“It was a real sense of community,” Veselov said. “A couple people came out, it was a very nice moment, connecting to people and making music. We always try to find that experience and connect with our audiences.”
“It was such a beautiful reminder that this thing we love and do for a living has a power greater than even words can express to connect with one another,” Williams said.
Along with the Leonard Cohen tune, Williams and Veselov played “Yesterday” by the Beatles and “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King. Cipriano later sent his video clip to PBS’s American Portrait initiative, which collects a variety of personal accounts from members of the public.
Though Rushfirth is now out of isolation — her results came back negative a few days after the concert — she’s still experiencing great stress as a healthcare professional.
“It feels like things are moving so quickly at work,” Rushfirth said. “We’re trying to mobilize as much care and staff and resources as possible. It’s kind of a breakneck pace.”
A lifelong advocate for women’s rights, she said working as a nurse midwife during the pandemic is particularly challenging.
“It’s figuring out the balance of how to take care of pregnant women and their babies, but minimizing the amount of times they come into the hospital,” Rushfirth said. “No one deserves for this to be their pregnancy experience, to bring their baby home during a pandemic.”
Williams and Veselov, who are resident faculty at the Longy School of Music and play in the critically acclaimed Neave Trio along with pianist Eri Nakamura, also had their lives upended by the coronavirus crisis. The couple had to postpone their wedding scheduled for later this month.
“Hallelujah” carries great meaning for everyone who organized the concert; Williams would have walked down the aisle to the Leonard Cohen song, and the couple played it at Santamaria’s own wedding.
“The song itself is so timeless,” Williams said. “I have a lot of different emotional attachments to it. It’s so beautiful in its simplicity.”
It’s not the first time the couple has played a personal concert for an isolated person in distress — in fact, it’s their trio’s origin story. A decade ago, the group played for their friend and fan Bruce, who was no longer able to see the trio’s concerts after becoming paralyzed. Veselov said Bruce shared many stories about his life that night, particularly about his daughter Niamh — pronounced “Neave.”
“We can’t hug each other now, we can’t safely drop off baked goods,” Santamaria said. “What we can do is bolster each other’s spirits with our words, and I think music is one of the ways we can actually touch each other right now. [Anna and Mikhail] were playing from the heart.”
In many ways, one particular verse from “Hallelujah” coincidentally evokes Santamaria’s impulse to help her friend.
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
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