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The Gift of Music

Cecilia Rossiter, T, Q3 Team Heartland

Rossiter was born with the gift of music, and spent years developing her skills. The road to mastery was long and had many stops along the way. She began cello lessons when she was 10 years old and has worked in Chicago, Nashville, Pittsburgh, South Korea, Minneapolis/St. Paul, Rochester, MN, and the Washington, DC metro area.

“I did not have mastery in cello playing until I had mastery in practicing. I worked on it and broke through in being especially effective around age 28,” said Rossiter. “My primary teacher, Frank Miller, was principal cellist for [acclaimed conductor Arturo] Toscanini and the NBC Symphony Orchestra in the ‘50s and for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for more than 30 years. He was the master of master cellists.”

Rossiter went on to become the principal cellist at the Rochester Symphony Orchestra in the early 1990s where she met Peter Ostroushko and performed on his album “Heart of the Heartland,” which won the 1995 Acoustic Instrumental Album of the Year. She founded the Joioso Trio and performed on public radio, in concert and at the Music and Medicine Series of the Mayo Clinic.

She taught in all the places she lived, sharing her gift with all age groups and skill levels. She was affiliated with music schools, high schools and universities. After moving to Washington, DC in the late 1990s she also started working for the National Academy of Sciences, her right arm wasn’t lifting up. Rossiter thought she had moved too many boxes.

And then one night, playing Kol Nidre – a piece for solo cello and orchestra – Cecilia dropped her bow during the performance. Her symptoms had finally become too obvious. Within months, Cecilia was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. A year and a half later she heeded her doctor’s advice and retired.

She was struggling with the disease when, due to a high fever, she went completely blind for two days. “It was a kick in the rear. I needed to move forward and create a life that had workability, even with the circumstance of blindness.” said Rossiter.

So she moved from Washington, DC to Lincoln, NE and began to create a community she could participate in. She bought a house near the University of Nebraska so she could be “within power chair” access to its library and its collection of science publications. She also started attending a fellowship group. It has great people and the community Rossiter was looking for. Through Landmark she found an outlet to connect her community and her experiences to a broader audience.

“I don’t have the ability to demonstrate, and I don’t have the stamina,” said Rossiter. “So where [performing] was bringing music out of silence, we now have something else to bring out of silence – a play, a sharing.”

So what is MS? It is a degenerative neurological disease, with an aspect of brain atrophy that resembles an acceleration of aging. Cecilia gets lost unexpectedly, has slowed reactions that explain falling and breaking her arm in 2006, and she deals with cognitive challenges. There is no cure, but there are drugs that can slow down the progression of the disease.

There are three things that determine its severity – how much inflammation in the brain or spinal cord, how destructive the inflammation is and how much capacity the brain has to work around it.

Symptoms that frequently lead to diagnosis are vision problems, numbness, or limbs that do not move properly. As the disease attacks the immune system, it gets harder to control muscles and body functions. The two leading causes of death from MS are starvation and bladder infection.

In “Disappearing Dis-Ease,” Rossiter teamed up with comedian Juli Burney and her mother, retired syndicated columnist Joan Burney to write scripts for 12 people diagnosed with MS, including Rossiter. It is an expression of living powerfully, no matter what the circumstances.

Each show is different, as anywhere from five to seven of the vignettes are performed. The topics vary from a husband and wife dealing with a leg that won’t stop shaking, to a professional bioengineer who takes everything coolly with Coors as the medical treatment.

There is a vignette titled, “I’m Fine,” performed by a former nurse who details how it is easier to say, “I’m fine” than to talk about and deal with disabilities.

Another woman shares her story of being a mother and grandmother who refuses to let the disease prevent her from riding roller coasters. She is determined to have fun and live her life. Her MS started in 1980, but wasn’t diagnosed until 1987 at the Mayo Clinic. She actively volunteers for the Midlands MS Chapter and won the National MS Society’s Volunteer of the Year Award in 2003. One of the vignettes, “MS Sucks” is by a doctor who has worked all over the world – in Pakistan, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Antarctica, and the Pacific Islands.

Rossiter and her troupe have performed the play five times in Omaha and Lincoln, NE this fall. They are slated to perform at the end of January with the support of a grant from the Nebraska Arts Council. And that is just the beginning.

“We’re creating it for anyone who wants it in the country,” she said. A film of the play will be created and distributed to all 54 MS chapters so a local version of the play can be written and performed with their own members, their own stories. There is an included script/blueprint that provides a formula to write the script, how to publicize the play and what steps to take.

“We’re creating a voice for us,” Rossiter said. “Now I’m being healed and healing.”

By giving people a voice Rossiter now finds that her father, as well as a larger audience, has an unprecedented grasp and empathy of what life with a diagnosis of MS implies. Communication has become free where mystery once inspired silence. “Our miracle is simply being on stage and sharing as people living with circumstances that are difficult to wrap your mind around. We present as amazingly fine.”

Written & Edited by Steve Schapiro

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