It didn’t seem possible that a shovel could have so much power.
Yet, I could have been holding a high voltage line. It wasn’t that I was knocked over, but I felt a strong connection. There was life there.
The words of Rabbi Richard Perlman to the gathering at Lincoln Park Cemetery had everything to do with the feeling. He explained the symbolic meaning of what we were about to do:
First, the shovel was not to be handed from person to person. We were each to reach for it. This was a voluntary act, not one thrust upon us.
Second, the first dirt we were each to drop on the casket was to come with the blade reversed, a sign of our reluctance to what we were doing and our separation from the one being buried. This was followed by a minimum of two full shovels of earth.
We lined up on both sides of the grave. The sun blazed. It was warm but not oppressive. The grass was thick and dark green. From Route 37 and the off ramp to Post Road, Lincoln Park looks like a treeless housing development of the 1950s, a Leavitt Town of headstones in neat rows intertwined by roads.
The cemetery looks very different from where we stood near its middle. Its vastness brings you to a different realm. On the one hand, you can’t escape that you are standing in the midst of so many. On the other, there is openness. The sky dwarfs the land. On the periphery, life went on. Cars and trucks, distant vehicles glinting sun, stopped and then moved as lights changed on Post Road.
The sky, streaked with wispy clouds, was the tablet for our thoughts, but it was the earth that anchored us. It was sandy, yellow-brown and without rocks. I wondered where the rocks left by those visiting gravesites had come from. Perhaps, like us, the rocks were transplants.
Below us was the body of Sam Chester.
Sam died July 6. He was 99. Even at that age, he was full of life and, as I was to learn during the memorial service at Temple Am David and the Shiva at the Chester home in Garden City, he was still effecting change.
Sam never ceased meeting and connecting with people, although in the final weeks of his life he seemed to be in two worlds – the one that is here and that of his beloved Esther who died earlier this year.
It was because of Esther, or rather, what Sam looked to do for Esther, that I met Sam. Esther was an artist who kept painting up until her death. Her works feature a variety of subjects but it is musical instruments – vibrant with color and movement – for which she is best known. While she was still living – Esther was then 94 – Sam knew he wanted a place where her work would be preserved and enjoyed. The place is the Robert Shapiro Performing Arts Center at Toll Gate High School.
Some months later, the Esther Chester Art Center was dedicated at Temple Am David after Sam became a temple member and donated to ensure continuation of the temple’s religious education program.
It was at the temple event, where Sam played on the violin a song he had composed for Esther that week, that I got to know him. Soon after, he was on the phone, suggesting I visit him because he wanted to give me a print of one of Esther’s paintings.
In that and subsequent visits, I learned of how he had used naltrexone, a drug developed in the 1960s to help alcoholics and drug addicts, in low doses [LDN] to cure Esther of a metastic melanoma cancer tumor. With careers in business followed by one in medical research, Sam understood the significance of the low-cost drug. He contacted Brown University and they agreed to undertake a clinical trial, which he helped underwrite.
Sam looked for solutions and he didn’t want to waste time. It may explain why he bonded so quickly with people. There was nothing phony about his belief that we, as individuals and collectively, can make life here better.
I shouldn’t have been surprised when Tony DelVecchio, a close friend for many years, told me that Sam concluded Judaism is a powerful religion but that it was being torn apart by secularism. Sam acted. He believed everything was possible, even getting Jews to agree on Judaism. He called Jewish leaders, paying their travel expenses to come together for a form of summit. While I don’t know the outcome of that effort, Tony told me of how Sam took up the cause to save the Music Mansion on the East Side. It was how Tony and Sam met and how they became friends. The mansion was part of a trust administered by the former Rhode Island Hospital Trust Bank. The bank decided to sell the mansion that is a gathering place for music groups and for performances. Sam was appalled. He wasn’t going to let this happen. He mounted a campaign, soliciting $5 donations from East Side residents, to save the mansion. The cause gained traction and publicity and soon, as Tony recalls, the bank was pleading for him to stop, “because you’re killing us.”
Rabbi Perlman surely witnessed the same energy and drive in arranging for the dedication of the Esther Chester Art Center at the temple last December. In his eulogy, he spoke of how Sam had little patience for prolonged liturgy: The shorter the service, the better. But that wasn’t the underlying message. Rather, it was of Sam’s commitment to honor his parents, his love for Esther and his efforts to help others.
Sam’s enthusiasm to help others was also the theme of Pradeep Chopra’s remarks at the service. A doctor and an assistant professor at the Brown School of Medicine where he directs the pain management center, Pradeep first learned of Sam’s work with LDN from a patient who had provided him with a story about the clinical trial from the Warwick Beacon. Pradeep wanted to find out more. He wrote Sam.
Sam didn’t dally. He never did. As soon as he received the letter, he was on the phone. That night, the two spent three hours talking about the drug that, since then, Chopra has found is highly effective in dealing with pain management. He is planning a clinical trial.
I last saw Sam close to three weeks ago.
A mutual friend, Oliver Brady, who works at the Garden City branch of Ameriprise Financial, not far from Sam’s home, told me that Sam was failing. It wasn’t as if he had had a heart attack or that there was some medical complication. He wasn’t eating or drinking much. He seemed to have lost that energy that was Sam. Caretakers were looking after him. He was spending a lot of time sleeping.
“It looks like he has decided it is time,” said Oliver.
We agreed to meet at his house. One of his two caretakers, MJ, met us at the door. She was suntanned, bright and cherry. She brought us into the bedroom, although she thought Sam was asleep.
“You have visitors,” she said in a soft voice.
“Oh,” he responded with an uninterested tone.
Oliver and I told him we just wanted to say hello, although we both suspected it was good-bye. Sam didn’t move.
“What’s happened with the clinical trials?” I asked.
Sam opened his eyes and looked at us. It was as if he had been jolted back into this world. He asked if we could find out. He was anxious for news. Oliver and I looked through papers on the kitchen counter. We made a call but without success, and then told Sam we would get back to him. Several days later, I reached someone at Brown who told me the trial wouldn’t start until August and the good news that it was approved by the FDA. I told Oliver that afternoon and he stopped at Sam’s with the news on the way back to his office. Less than 12 hours later, Sam died.
Those events replayed in my mind as I stood next to Oliver at the grave. Sam had done so much. He had given so much. Now was the time for the good-bye I had been unable to say earlier.
The shovel came cleanly from the earth. With the blade reversed, I attempted to balance a scoop of soil, but it slid off and that was appropriate. Such a singular desire to help others can never be easily buried.