Music to a Father's Ears
An Ailing Man's Wish: Seeing His Daughter Play

By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 2, 2006

With his days numbered -- three weeks, perhaps, the doctors said in early March -- Máximo Cid Ortiz spoke of his unfulfilled dreams one recent morning in a hospital room.

Watching his three young daughters grow into women? Highly unlikely, thought Cid Ortiz, a patient at the National Institutes of Health who is dying of a bone marrow disease.

Returning to his job and family in the Dominican Republic? Unimaginable.

Seeing Catherine, his eldest child, a 14-year-old pianist, perform in a packed concert hall? His mind raced.

Suddenly, his friend Grace Rivera-Oven, with him in the room, was smiling.

"That's when a light turned on in my mind," she said later. "That's something I could try. That's something I could do."

Rivera-Oven, the host of a Montgomery County public access cable show, has a fat Rolodex. She phoned like mad. She called Eliot Pfanstiehl of the Strathmore Hall Foundation. She left a message for Carlos César Rodríguez, a renowned pianist.

"I'd never put a concert together," Rivera-Oven said. "I said to myself, 'If these people call me back, that's a sign.' "

Pfanstiehl called back first. Did she want Strathmore's main concert hall or the Mansion, a more intimate venue? Then Rodríguez called. Would March 31 work?

Cid Ortiz, 44, arrived at the NIH's Bethesda campus in 2002, six years after his aplastic anemia was diagnosed. Gradually, the disease has destroyed his body's ability to produce white and red blood cells and platelets.

Aplastic anemia afflicts about two people in a million in the Western Hemisphere, said Neal Young, one of Cid Ortiz's physicians and director of NIH's hematology branch. The ailment had mystified most of the doctors who examined Cid Ortiz in the Dominican Republic.

"My doctors said, 'There's nothing for you here,' " he said. "In my country, there are no resources."

Four years ago, a Dominican physician mentioned Cid Ortiz's case to a colleague at NIH. A short time later, Cid Ortiz said goodbye to his wife, Laura Castillo, and daughters and flew to Washington.

He was an outpatient initially, traveling almost 20 miles by bus each morning from Laurel to NIH. Doctors tried to bolster his immune system, without success. A perfect match for a bone marrow transplant is yet to be found.

His condition began to deteriorate and became dire this year.

Early last month, doctors told him he might live a few more weeks. When he called his wife to tell her, he promised to fight until the last day. He tried to tell his daughters in the softest way imaginable.

"I'm like a ship that's been under construction for many years," he told them. "Now I'm ready to set sail."

With Pfanstiehl, Rodríguez and other volunteers lined up to help, Rivera-Oven scrambled to arrange Catherine's concert. Strangers called, some prompted by a radio deejay who spoke about Cid Ortiz's wish on his Spanish-language show. Leave the catering to me, one man offered. I'll get the wine, someone else said.

Castillo flew to Washington last week from the Dominican Republic with two of their children: Catherine and 13-year-old Rebecca. Lisamel, 2, stayed home with a family friend.

Castillo and the two teenagers arrived at a small apartment for relatives of NIH patients and threw themselves into planning the concert. Every decision seemed daunting. Catherine couldn't decide what pieces she would play. At the last minute, she made up her mind: Sonatina No. 4 by Frantisek Xaver Dusek, Albert Biehl's "Windmill in Holland" and Mozart's Minuet No. 2 in F Major.

And Catherine had composed a piece titled "Mi Alma" ("My Soul") in honor of her father.

On Friday evening, Catherine, Rebecca and their mother got their hair done at a Bethesda salon. Catherine wore a long, strapless baby-blue dress. Then they left for the concert hall.

"I feel really important," Catherine said.

Minutes before the performance, mother and daughters touched up their makeup and sprayed on perfume as the audience filed into the Mansion, a hall that seats 100. Cid Ortiz's friends from church showed up for the free concert, as did members of Montgomery's Latino Lions Club. Many offered donations for the family.

Then Cid Ortiz, wearing a dark suit and a bright-red tie, took a seat in the front row next to his wife.

Catherine strolled toward the grand piano with regal confidence and took a bow, her dark brown hair sparkling under the spotlights.

"Tonight is about the heart," Pfanstiehl, Strathmore's chief executive, announced to the audience. "It's about a father's love for his daughter. I don't know whose heart that wouldn't touch."

Catherine played with determination and grace, swaying gently on the piano bench. Women wiped tears with folded napkins. Men blinked to fight back the urge to cry.

When the final notes faded, the audience jumped up and clapped thunderously. Cid Ortiz handed his daughter a bouquet of white roses.

After an intermission, a little time for the tears to dry, it was Rodríguez's turn to perform, accompanied by four opera singers.

At night's end, friends and strangers approached Cid Ortiz. Many didn't know what to say.

"I can't describe the amount of gratitude I have," he said again and again.

His wife wiped drops of blood that dripped from his nose, tucking the stained tissues into a plastic wine cup as Cid Ortiz made his way out of the hall.

Cid Ortiz donned his surgical mask, stepped outside and boarded a waiting car. He returned to the hospital with Castillo and the girls, who have decided to stay by his side until he's ready to set sail.

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