“For when I come to New York City”
Story by Robin Elisabeth Kilmer
Two weeks ago Christopher Abeleda, 19, started chemotherapy treatment for his Acute Lymphoblastic Leukemia.
In his room at the hospital, he is often surrounded by visiting family members—and his guitar and keyboard.
He spends his time learning to play songs from In the Heights on his keyboard after his drama teacher dropped by and gave him the sheet music.
“I’ve basically moved in here,” he said with a laugh during a phone interview from Florida, where Chris lives with his family.
Apparently, an unfortunate diagnosis is no need for a loss of humor.
He will be receiving inpatient treatment for another two weeks, and faces at least a two-year recovery.
He and his family were relieved to hear that he had an 80 percent chance of recovery.
But two weeks ago, Chris had a different plan in place for next week—particularly on Mon., Feb. 11.
On that day, he had planned on flying from Florida into New York City with his girlfriend Ruby to see In the Heights.
However, one week after purchasing the tickets, he ended up in the hospital after a basketball game with his brother.
“I started fainting and seeing stars,” recalled Chris.
A week later he received his diagnosis.
“I was still hoping to go [to the concert]. I was trying to break the record for fastest person to recover and get out of here,” he said, conjuring a chuckle.
That Chris would originally make plans to go to New York to see the musical, long before the diagnosis, seemed like a curious proposition to begin with.
His sister Mara describes her parents as strict, and that Ruby’s parents even more so.
But Mara readily admits she was a key player in instilling a love of In the Heights in her brother. Mara currently lives in Washington Heights—and only got her parents’ blessing to move to New York City after she made a PowerPoint presentation.
“As soon as my brother found out about this concert, he was on a mission to see it,” said Mara. “But the chances of traveling to New York from Florida to see the concert together seemed about slim to none.”
But Chris borrowed a page from his sister’s book and made a PowerPoint presentation himself to present to Ruby’s parents, explaining that she would be safe, and that he would cover their travel expenses.
“It took three weeks to get an answer,” recalled Chris.
But his efforts were not in vain.
The young couple was granted 24 hours to travel to New York City and visit under Mara’s supervision.
“I honestly didn’t believe it at first,” said Mara.
No longer incredulous about her brother’s capacity for victory, Mara believes that her brother’s persistence will help him in his recovery.
“It is that same voice and determination that is going to make him a winner against cancer,” she said.
At the end of Chris’s senior year at Gateway High School in Kissimmee, Florida in 2012, his drama teacher, Donald Rupe, announced that this year’s seniors would perform In the Heights. The school boasts an 80% Latino student population, and many of the musical’s themes resonated deeply.
Chris’s girlfriend Ruby would play the role of Nina, and his cousin Vincent would take on the role of Graffiti Pete.
Mara, a thespian herself, introduced Chris to the song “Breathe.”
And nothing was the same afterwards.
Even after he’d graduated from Gateway, his college roommates could attest to his devotion.
“All I found myself doing was listening, singing, and talking about In the Heights, so much so that my roommate and my friends started learning the lyrics because I was singing them all the time. I just had to be a part of the show somehow, or at least make myself feel like I was,” said Chris.
So he cultivated a role for himself as unofficial assistant director and returned from college on the weekends to watch his friends rehearse in their high school production.
It was so successful that the students earned a spot at the Florida State Thespian Society, where their production was chosen out of hundreds of other high school productions to be showcased at the largest thespian festival in the country. In March, they will be performing at Tampa’s Morsani Theater, before 5,200 students.
“Sometimes I would help by giving notes, or working on music with some of the Ensemble,” explained Chris. “A lot of times I just sat at the rehearsals and did nothing but watch. I loved every second of it.”
Until recently, he had trouble putting into words precisely the reasons for his enthusiasm.
His experience with his disease has helped him see what he loved so much about In the Heights.
“For awhile now, I’ve been struggling with the idea of wanting to leave home, or stick around. Kind of like Usnavi, I have felt like I’ve spent so much time here that there’s nothing new to do except the same old, same old,” he said.
“But these past few weeks in the hospital have truly opened my eyes to what home really is. I have visitors every day – an endless amount of love and support pouring from all over, just to support me in my battle,” said Chris.
A specific line in the musical from the song “Alabanza” resonated with him: “With patience and faith, we remain unafraid. I’m home.”
“It’s my favorite line from the show.”
Rather than get a refund for his plane ticket, Chris has decided to keep his airline credit.
“For when I come to New York City,” he said.
Tickets to the one-night only performance at the United Palace Theater of “In the Heights: In Concert” on Mon., Feb. 11th are still available at www.telecharge.com. Some specially priced tickets reserved for local residents are also being offered on a first-come, first-serve basis at the Northern Manhattan Arts Alliance (NoMAA). For more information, please call NoMAA at 212.568.4396