Surrounded by wildflower fields near the edge of a rocky cliff on the island of Belle-Île -en-Mer, France, Jamie Nicole Burrows stares out to sea. All summer, she has been taking these hikes. They’ve helped the Carnegie Mellon voice major decompress after training at the Lyrique-en-Mer opera festival with some of the world’s greatest singers. The hikes have also given her an interlude before her upcoming senior year. What’s in store for her might intimidate a burly bari-tenor, let alone this 98-pound, five-foot-one soprano.
Before her May 2012 graduation, she and 190 of her classmates will perform on April 2 at what many consider the mecca for musicians: New York City’s Carnegie Hall. The concert is a celebration of the School of Music’s Centennial Anniversary and will reprise a March 31 celebratory concert at Pittsburgh’s Benedum Center. In addition to the students performing, alumni young and old, with more than a few Grammy and Tony winners among them, will take the stage. Burrows has this to look forward to while trying to maintain her 3.9 GPA and fulfill her senior recital. And figure out what to do after graduation. Gulp.
No matter how stressful the upcoming school year becomes, Burrows reassures herself during her ocean-side walks that she can handle whatever happens because of her best friend, Lauren Nicole Eshbaugh.
It’s a warm afternoon during the first day of Carnegie Mellon’s August 2008 freshmen orientation week. In between the scheduled activities, Burrows, a doe-eyed freshman, watches from a campus bench as hoards of classmates she has yet to meet pass by. Her parents are traveling back home to Tucson, Ariz., about 2,000 miles away. Although Burrows doesn’t know anyone, she already feels at home. Suddenly, her thoughts of tranquility are interrupted.
Burrows looks up. A modelesque blonde, wearing a flowing dress and perhaps too much blush, towers above her. “I’m Lauren.” Burrows recognizes her from orientation activities. They get acquainted, and when they realize they have more in common than they can share from a campus bench, they head to Eshbaugh’s dorm room.
In addition to their identical middle names, they both have an insatiable appetite for performance training, a deep love of music, and a shared history in youth choirs. Neither can wait for their next four years of studies at the School of Music, widely praised for its conservatory training, dual emphasis on academics and performance, and tradition of graduating legendary musicians. The school’s vocal alumni roll-call is rife with Metropolitan Opera and Broadway singers. And the list of non-vocal majors is just as notable, including composers of Hollywood films and television shows, professors in the best music schools in the country (including Carnegie Mellon), and principal instrumentalists and conductors in renowned orchestras around the world.
As for Burrows and Eshbaugh, it’s as if they will step into the shoes of past success stories. With her red mane and fair complexion, Burrows could be mistaken for soprano Christiane Noll (A’90), star of several award-winning Broadway musicals, including Jekyll & Hyde, Urinetown, and the most recent revival of Ragtime. Eshbaugh has her own alumna doppelganger in mezzo-soprano Heidi Skok (A’90), whose statuesque presence adorned Metropolitan Opera’s stage for more than a decade.
Right now, though, they’re just incoming freshmen with big lungs and a lot to learn about music, life, and each other. Burrows is soft-spoken—a self-described “music nerd” who mostly keeps to herself; Eshbaugh is gregarious, immune to intimidation, and addicted to adventure. Soon, they’re inseparable.
Although Burrows is a stranger to Pittsburgh, Eshbaugh knows her way around, having been raised in Indiana, Pa., just 60 miles from Pittsburgh. So, for the first few weeks of the semester, Eshbaugh plays tour guide. From the symphony to diners, no Pittsburgh staple is out of their reach. Sometimes, when Burrows is too tired to make the walk to her off-campus dorm, she has a sleepover in Eshbaugh’s Donner House room, where the two philosophize until their eyes close.
In October, they begin working in the costume department for an upcoming music school production. One night, while climbing the stairs to the costume shop, Eshbaugh stops at the second-floor landing.
“Are you OK?” Burrows asks.
Eshbaugh says she feels queasy, but they press forward. At the next floor, Eshbaugh says she has to throw up. Burrows snatches a trash can. It’s not the first time in the past few weeks that Eshbaugh has been ill. First, her back hurt. Then, she had leg spasms. Now, she’s throwing up. They both agree she should go to the student clinic. They walk there, but it’s closed. What to do? Perhaps Eshbaugh should go the hospital and get checked out, just to be safe. Burrows calls campus police from her cell phone, and a few minutes later, they’re on their way to the hospital in the back of a campus squad car.
The hospital staff administers preliminary tests, and Eshbaugh calls her parents, who are concerned enough to get in their car and make the hour drive to Pittsburgh. Through it all, Eshbaugh doesn’t lose her sense of humor. She walks up to the registration nurse and asks if she could ensure her attending physician is male. And cute. Burrows blushes. When Eshbaugh’s parents arrive, they thank Burrows for staying with their daughter, and Eshbaugh’s father gives her a ride to her dorm.
Back at the hospital, doctors press on Eshbaugh’s abdomen. She winces. Maybe it’s her gallbladder? More tests. When the bloodwork results come, the healthcare team is troubled. Perhaps the tests are wrong. They run them again. At 7 am the next morning, an oncologist steps into Eshbaugh’s room. “There’s only one explanation for blood platelets to be that low and calcium to be that high,” he says. “Something is growing, and it’s growing rapidly.” “Like a tumor?” Eshbaugh asks. Like a tumor.
In class, Burrows doesn’t see her friend. She’s worried. Eshbaugh never misses a class. After a few days of small-talk texting back and forth, Burrows and some other music majors decide to visit Eshbaugh in the hospital. When they arrive, Eshbaugh knows her friends are wondering what’s wrong. Tears stream down her cheeks as she tells them that she’s taking a medical leave from school. She has cancer. It’s called rhabdomyosarcoma—a rare, aggressive cancer of the connective tissues. It will require up to 11 months of chemotherapy, and blood transfusions. Hopefully, she’ll be in remission then and can resume her studies.
The students hug Eshbaugh, the last time they’ll be able to do so for a while. Once she starts chemo, her immune system will be compromised. A hug or a handshake might have serious ramifications. So, the next day, Burrows buys pink and purple embroidery floss at the University Center art store and twists them together into a friendship bracelet. During her next visit, she ties it around Eshbaugh’s wrist. “Even if I can’t touch you,” Burrows tells her, “I can always hold your hand.”
Eshbaugh begins her monthly treatment regimen: 48 hours of chemotherapy, followed three weeks later by another five days of eight-hour chemotherapy sessions. After every chemo cycle, Eshbaugh receives a blood transfusion. She usually gets a fever, too, which forces her to stay in her hospital room. She can’t receive visitors for days. Then the cycle begins again. Chemotherapy, blood transfusions.
Despite the grueling routine, the best friends work out a schedule of their own. Burrows visits Eshbaugh once a week; they keep in touch via cell phone and Internet video-calls when Eshbaugh is in Indiana; and, once a month, if Eshbaugh feels well enough, they venture to the symphony or opera.
The chemo robs Eshbaugh of her hair and her eyebrows, but she doesn’t let it steal her beauty—especially when she goes out with Burrows. On those nights, Eshbaugh always dons a bright red wig and colors in eyebrows to match, so that the two can take on the town as—in Eshbaugh’s words—“two hot red gingers.” And though she can’t sing because the chemotherapy affected her vocal cords, Eshbaugh attends the weekly voice seminar class when she can, where she can hear undergraduate, graduate, and artist diploma voice majors perform.
A few weeks before classes start in fall 2009, Burrows gets a phone call. It’s Eshbaugh. Her doctors gave her the all-clear. Her cancer is in remission. Eshbaugh is back!
The best friends return to their old ways—the Zebra-Lounge lunches, the inside jokes, the Cheesecake Factory dinners. They’re in different classes now because Eshbaugh is still a freshman. But Eshbaugh is just happy to be training again, and Burrows couldn’t be happier to have her friend back.
Fittingly, in mid-October, Eshbaugh makes plans to walk the cancer survivors’ lap in conjunction with the campus’ “Relay for Life,” an overnight relay used to raise money for the American Cancer Society. Not feeling great that night, she has to walk slowly; later her legs begin to swell and hurt, driving her to tears. The next day her doctors perform MRIs and CT scans. They discover that cancerous tumors in her brain and spine are impeding her mobility, causing her legs to stiffen. And they’re growing.
She’ll have to start radiation immediately, followed by chemotherapy and blood transfusions. Because living in the dorms is too risky, she’ll have to make the daily 120-mile round-trip journey from her Indiana home. This time, though, Eshbaugh’s not leaving school. “If I have to go to Pittsburgh every day,” she tells her mother, “I’m going to class. I am not—I am NOT—staying home.”
For the next six months, in addition to the commute, Eshbaugh balances radiation, chemotherapy, and blood transfusions with studying, private voice lessons, and nights out with her friends.
By April, the juggling gets harder. Eshbaugh begins losing the ability to walk—forced to use a walker, then a wheelchair. As her tumors grow and her health deteriorates, the School of Music students and faculty rally around her. No one would ever question the school’s academic prowess; now, no one would question its heart. Her classmates make sure that whenever Eshbaugh arrives on campus, someone is there to meet her and push her to class; usually it’s Burrows. And, in early April, the school throws a benefit concert in her honor.
As the academic year nears the end, Eshbaugh pushes on with her schooling despite being so weak that she sometimes falls asleep while taking notes. One of her professors, Natalie Ozeas, tells her: “Lauren, your grades are so good, you’re going to get an A in this class whether you take the final or not.” Eshbaugh’s reply? “I’m going to take the final.”
But just a few days after that vow, Eshbaugh enters hospice care. On a Sunday afternoon in early May, music professors Laura Knoop Very and Stephen Totter visit Eshbaugh in Indiana to deliver a book of handwritten letters from Eshbaugh’s schoolmates. Her parents, at her bedside, choke back tears as they read them to her.
On Tuesday, May 4, 2010—just days shy of her twentieth birthday—Lauren Nicole Eshbaugh loses her battle with cancer.
Three nights later, Burrows and a group of music students “take” the Fence in memory of their friend. They blast music, sing, dance, and cover the Fence from top to bottom in bright red paint, drawing the letters L-A-U-R-E-N on the posts. For the final touch, they inscribe “Choose to Be Happy,” Eshbaugh’s mantra, on the middle railing. The next morning, along with dozens of other sleep-deprived music majors, Burrows boards the university-organized bus that will carry them to Eshbaugh’s funeral. She sits alone for the 60-minute ride.
Recordings of Eshbaugh singing fill the church. A bouquet of pink roses adorns her casket. Her professor, Knoop Very, sings. Doves are released at the cemetery. After the service, Eshbaugh’s parents hug Burrows. “She never took the bracelet off,” Eshbaugh’s mother tells her. “She’s buried with it.”
Burrows, grieving when she arrives in Tucson for summer break, volunteers in the oncology ward of a local hospital for the American Cancer Society. She shares information with cancer patients about resources available to them, coping methods, and, of course, Eshbaugh’s story—how her best friend never stopped fighting. Never. Volunteering helps Burrows grieve, but returning to Carnegie Mellon in fall 2010 for her junior year is hard. Some classmates are further along in the grieving process. She considers taking a leave of absence. But then she thinks about her friend who never gave up. She won’t either.
Throwing herself into extracurricular activities, she becomes the events chair for the Carnegie Mellon “Relay for Life” and soon discovers she’s a natural at it. They need someone to sing the national anthem. She knows just who to call. Bagpipes? Got it. “I ended up asking all my friends to perform,” she says. “And since so many musicians and performers were so close to Lauren, they were all very happy to come and be a part of it.” She even joins in, singing “Amazing Grace” in four-part harmony with three classmates.
In the spring, Burrows performs with the Pittsburgh Pops All-Star College Chorus conducted by Grammy, Tony, Emmy, and Oscar winner Marvin Hamlisch. She also heads a new College of Fine Arts fundraiser: “Mr. Beaux Arts,” a lighthearted version of a male beauty pageant. She does this while preparing for her junior recital, her most important performance yet. She saves the last line in her recital dedication page for the person who couldn’t make it: To my Lauren—I truly have an angel with me tonight. Miss you every day, girlfriend.
At the end-of-year School of Music awards ceremony, the faculty announces the establishment of the Lauren Eshbaugh Memorial Award, created to honor music students who embody the qualities of Eshbaugh: academic achievement, musicianship, kindness, and support among musicians. The junior class inaugural winner—Jamie Burrows.
After the ceremony, she hugs Eshbaugh’s parents, whom she hasn’t seen since the funeral. They ask her what she plans to do with the award money. She says it will help pay for her summer plans—a seven-week professional program in France, where she’ll sing alongside opera legends and gain her first professional opera credits. The award’s timing is divinely serendipitous: she’d otherwise be unable to afford the trip.
Now back in Pittsburgh for her senior year, Burrows’ walks have changed from French cliff-side hikes to strolls through nearby Schenley Park. Unlike the naive freshman on that campus bench four years ago, Burrows says she’s now prepared to handle whatever the future holds. That includes being among the performers for the upcoming Benedum Center and Carnegie Hall celebration concerts for the School of Music’s Centennial Anniversary.
After she graduates in May, she’s not sure what’s next. Because of her tiny size, she’ll probably get cast as a child for some time. But the young woman within is now anything but small. She knows that on one staircase step, everything can change. But always, she can choose to be happy.
Learn more about the School of Music Centennial Celebration: music.cmu.edu/centennial
Nicholas Ducassi (A’10), an actor, writer, and filmmaker, is a regular contributor to this magazine.