Betsy Fitzgerald was playing the harp when she felt her unborn daughter move for the first time.
It was during a concert last spring in Destin, Florida. Betsy was playing with the orchestra as two-time Grammy winner Patti LuPone was going through the song book for “Evita.”
In the middle of “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina,” little Isabel Lily Fitzgerald began to move with the music, as if she wanted to reach out from the womb and accompany her mother on the most unique string instrument in the world.
“When you’re a professional, you’re taught not to stop playing no matter what,” Betsy said. “Even if the ceiling falls in or the lights go out, you keep going. And I did. But nobody prepares you for that.”
Isabel was born four months later, on Aug. 7. Today, she will become the seventh generation of Betsy’s family to be christened at Christ Church Frederica on St. Simons Island. She will wear the christening gown her mother and two aunts wore as infants.
A week after the birth of her baby, the woman who will never forget her daughter’s first dance at the pillar of the harp could barely move her own body.
Betsy was diagnosed with a rare neurological disease known as Chronic Inflammatory Demyelinating Polyneuropathy, the chronic counterpart of Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
It is almost as rare as the instrument she has played most of her life. Only about 3 of every 1 million people in the U.S. are affected by it.
The disorder caused her to lose control over her muscles and feeling in her legs, feet, hands and arms. She began having severe balance issues.
She compared it to a squirrel running loose in the attic, chewing on wires and tearing up the insulation. Her extremities were numb. Her muscles weren’t getting the messages to move. She could not hold a pen or tell if her toes were up or down.
“It was like waking up from being a healthy person who could walk the dog in Shirley Hills and haul her harp up and down the stairs to, all of sudden, having a body that did not feel like my own,” she said. “I lost my independence. I couldn’t drive. I couldn’t take care of my baby. Every day, I couldn’t understand why I was losing power.”
Betsy is 38 years old, a bright and energetic young lady who is as passionate about the arts as anyone in her adopted hometown of Macon. She served as executive director of the Grand Opera House from September 2010 to May 2013 and is now vice president of leadership giving and major gifts at the United Way of Central Georgia.
She is one of only two professional harpists in Middle Georgia. (Calista Anne Koch, also from Macon, is the other.) Betsy’s younger sister, Lynn, is the principal harpist for the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
Betsy studied harp performance at the Eastman School of Music, in Rochester, New York, one of the top conservatories in the country. She was among the first students at Eastman to participate in an arts leadership program.
She comes from a musical family. Her mother, Marguerite Williams, is a former concert pianist. Betsy began taking piano lessons in the second grade. Three years later, she performed her first concerto with an orchestra in Utica, New York. When the family was living in Rome, New York, they attended “The Nutcracker.” Her sister, Lynn, was mesmerized by the sight and sound of the harp, and they rushed to the orchestra pit to see it up close at the end of the performance.
In the sixth grade, Betsy began taking lessons from the principal harpist with the Syracuse Symphony. Her mother made the two-hour trip on the freeway every week, often having to drive through the winter ice and snow.
COMING TO MACON
Music is what brought Betsy together with her husband, Keith, a Macon attorney and a jazz and classical trombone player. They met at Disney’s Epcot Center in Orlando in the summer of 1998, while doing professional studio work with top college music students from across the country.
Betsy had planned to have dinner one night with a classmate from Eastman, but he left without her. Keith, a trombone performance major at George Mason University in Virginia, was her friend’s roommate.
“He was standing there, and we were both hungry,” Betsy said. “He invited me to go with him, and I didn’t want to eat alone. We had the worst possible Chinese food in Kissimmee, Florida.”
Forget the cold egg rolls. It was love at first bite. After that summer, they were as inseparable as a couple could be in a long-distance relationship.
Keith auditioned on trombone for the Air Force Band and was sent to Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio. Betsy was later hired as orchestra manager at the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati.
They married in July 2000, after Keith received transfer orders to Yokota Air Base, outside of Tokyo. There, Betsy started the Vivace Performing Arts Program. She patterned it after Midsummer Macon, where she had been a performer and counselor as a college sophomore in 1996.
Keith’s last assignment was at Langley Air Force Base in Hampton, Virginia. After serving nine and a half years in the Air Force, he was accepted at Mercer University’s law school in fall 2007. Betsy remained in Virginia to finish her job as executive director of the Virginia Chorale in Norfolk.
By the time she joined him in spring 2009, Keith had fallen in love ... with Macon. The Fitzgeralds embraced the city, and it embraced them. Keith, she said, “became a Southern boy.”
The joy of motherhood five months ago was tempered by the uncertainty of her health situation. There were plenty of frightening interludes. Finally, when she talked about selling her harp, Keith stopped her in her tracks.
“I was truly terrified I would never be able to play again,” she said. “It scared me not to be able to do normal tasks. Music is part of the fabric of my soul. I did not want to be a permanent passive listener. My gift is to perform.”
She credits Macon neurologist Dr. Tom Hope for a quick and correct diagnosis. “He probably saved my career as a harpist,” she said. She is now under the care of a physician at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, who is one of the top CIDP specialists in the world.
Betsy is also grateful for “the best husband in the world. He has done an amazing job taking care of both me and Isabel, never complaining while continuing to work and perform.”
She started playing again two months ago. She performed with the Christmas cantata at Vineville United Methodist Church in December. Last week, she participated in the Georgia Bridal Bash Wedding Expo at Macon’s Terminal Station. Although she has limited her recitals and special concerts on the winter schedule, she has resumed sharing her harp music at weddings and special events.
As she adjusts to her new “normal,” she is having to learn a new note on the musical scale.
It is “P,” for Patience.
“I’ve never been one who sits back and waits,” she said. “Music is my life.”
Contact Gris at 744-4275 or firstname.lastname@example.org