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Child Cancer Survivor Honored In World Premiere of New Musical Work

color photo of rehearsal
Broad Street Presbyterian Church
William Boggs/Broad Street Presbyterian Church
Conductor William Boggs rehearses for the world premiere of Stephen Main's "Breathe" Sunday, Nov. 3 during the 11 a.m. worship service at Broad Street Presbyterian Church, Columbus.

Your beautiful infant child is diagnosed with cancer.

Months – even years – of doctor’s visits, tests, surgeries and medical treatments, like everything else in life, offer no guarantees. And even if the illness is brought under control, it still hangs over your family like the sword of Damocles.

It’s every parent’s nightmare. And Brittany and the Rev. Trip Porch, of Granville, have been living this nightmare ever since their son, Ward, was diagnosed with Wilms Tumor, a rare form of kidney cancer, nearly two years ago.

“I have been holding my breath since December 8, 2017 at 10:30 a.m.,” wrote Brittany Porch in her CaringBridge journal. “I want to breathe out.”

Ward, now 3, responded well to treatment, and his cancer has been in remission for a little over a year. A new musical work composed in celebration of that milestone will be given its world premiere in Columbus on Sunday, Nov. 3 at Broad Street Presbyterian Church.

The service, “For the Healers Among Us,” will honor those who work in the healthcare professions and will include the collection of a special offering for pediatric cancer research.

Commissioned by Broad Street Presbyterian Church, composer Stephen Main’s Breathe will be performed by soprano soloist Emily Oehrtman, an orchestra of strings and piano and the combined choirs of Broad Street Presbyterian Church, where Brittany Porch serves as director of mission and education, and First Presbyterian Church, Granville, where the Rev. Trip Porch serves as associate pastor.

The idea to mark Ward’s remission from cancer with a new musical work came from Brittany Porch’s colleague William Boggs, director of music ministry at Broad Street Presbyterian.

color photo of Trip, Ward and Brittany Porch at beach
Credit Trip Porch / Brittany Porch
Brittany Porch
The Rev. Trip, Ward and Brittany Porch

“Brittany’s probably the best mom I’ve ever seen,” Boggs said in a recent phone interview. “I remember one Sunday her little boy was running around in the narthex, just running around grabbing stuff, and her patience with him and just obvious love. We all know Brittany because she works with all our kids at church and all our mission projects. So she’s so well-loved that we needed to do something for her to acknowledge all that she’s gone through and the love she has for her child.”

Boggs approached Stephen Main to write to the new work for Broad Street Presbyterian after having been impressed by some of Main’s shorter choral works and his Christmas cantata, Wonder Tidings.

“I thought, Stephen is the only guy I know who could write a piece that delicately and that beautifully,” Boggs said.

Boggs sent Main the texts of Brittany Porch’s posts on CaringBridge. For the next few months, Main scoured the work of great poets, including Rumi, Walt Whitman and Edna St. Vincent Millay, but didn’t find a text that he believed would convey the emotional depth and range of the Porches’ experience.

So Main wrote his own text – something he had never done before – based on Brittany Porch’s CaringBridge posts.

“I felt incredibly shy writing the words,” Main said. “It was like revealing myself naked, because I wanted there to be some vulnerability in it, but that means you have to put your own skin in the game.”

Main’s poem for Breathe conveys the “jagged breath,” “tight chest,” “anxious eyes” and “tiny hands pressed tight into larger ones” that have become part of the Porches’ daily routine. “What was normal life,” Main's  text says, “becomes bated breath.”

Boggs says Main’s music also reflects the emotions of Porches’ journey, from terrifying diagnosis, through the trials of seemingly endless medical treatments and fears of bad news, to a glimmer of hope, and then the hard realization that it will be several years of good test results, several years of clean scans before the doctors will tell them that their son is cured.

“The only thing greater than (Main’s) text is how he set it musically,” Boggs said. “There’s a quote in the piece from the hymn ‘The Strife Is O’er, the Battle Done,’ and the first time it comes, it’s big – after the scan is all clear – we sing, we dance, everything is fine. And then that theme come back again, but it’s softer and it ends with the basses going down to a an unsettling place, because you realize that you’re not done. You’ve had this one battle that you’ve won, but you’ve got years of scans ahead. The music brings to the text so much more than just the text.”

Sunday’s premiere of Main’s Breathe will give the Porches a chance to stop and take a much-needed deep breath.

And, Brittany Porch says, they will be able to breathe out.  Someday.

“We will slowly exhale over the years with each new day, each giggle, each birthday, and each milestone. We will slowly exhale each clear scan and each year further from cancer,” Brittany Porch writes on CaringBridge. 

“Hope and love will remind us to breathe in the meantime.” 

Stephen Main's Breathe premieres Sunday, November 3 during the 11 am worship service at Broad Street Presbyterian Church.

Jennifer Hambrick unites her extensive backgrounds in the arts and media and her deep roots in Columbus to bring inspiring music to central Ohio as Classical 101’s midday host. Jennifer performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Civic Orchestra of Chicago before earning a Ph.D. in musicology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.