The light was blinking. I knew there was at least one voice message.
“I have some sad news,” the strong voice said after I dialed in my code. There was barely a pause and then the words, “Esther is gone.”
I knew immediately who had left the message. It was Sam Chester. Then he identified himself and left a number.
I scribbled the number and put down the receiver and just thought for a moment. I could see Esther clearly: in her wheelchair, her hair carefully arranged, the makeup adding color to her wrinkled cheeks, the black sequined dress and the jewelry...lots of jewelry. But it was her smile that carried it all. That was the first time I met her, although reporters had done stories on Sam and Esther Chester and, invariably, they returned from the assignment filled with admiration for the couple and their joie de vivre and love for each other. I felt I knew them, although I had never met them face-to-face.
Then, in early December, Lee Lerner came into our office. He was on a mission. The doctors said Esther didn’t have much time.
Sam had given a considerably large gift to Temple Am David so that it would continue its religious education program. The gift included prints of the many musical instruments Esther featured in her paintings. As the story goes, one of those prints – appropriately, that of a saxophone – hangs in the home of former President Bill Clinton. The late Senator Claiborne Pell gave Clinton the print and the President sent Esther a note expressing his delight with the work.
In recognition of both gifts, the temple would dedicate its meeting room as the Esther Chester Art Center that weekend. This was to be Esther’s day.
Everything was in high gear. Lee pulled some strings to get the prints hastily framed at Edgewood Gallery; brass plaques had been engraved by Bill Tuttle at Shane Awards; a cake was being baked, because Esther loved cake and ice cream. Word had gone out to the temple community and now he wanted to make certain the Warwick Beacon and the Cranston Herald carried the news.
We did a story, and I vowed not to miss the dedication. I wanted to meet both Chesters. Sam is 99; Esther was 94. They would celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary in January. I was in for a treat.
The temple community gathered around Esther and Sam to hear Rabbi Richard Perlman speak and then gaze at the joyful depictions of musical instruments, with their splashes of color, and to listen to children sing. Then everyone turned to Sam and Esther. He was standing beside her chair with his violin. He brought it to his chin and, before he started, Perlman said Sam would be playing a song for Esther.
The violin came to life. Words for the song had not quite been finalized, the rabbi said, which had me wondering what Sam would play. Why would he pick an unfinished song? The answer, which Sam provided, left me in awe. He had composed the piece for the occasion and especially for Esther. It had all come together in a matter of a few days.
I talked with Sam, Esther and many of their friends that afternoon and took pictures for a story in the next edition of the Beacon. No sooner did the paper come out did I get a call from Sam, thanking me and inviting me to their house in Cranston.
“I have a gift for you,” he said. I asked if I could bring my wife Carol, who after hearing about the song and both their lives wanted to meet them. Sam wanted to meet Carol, so we arranged a time.
Esther graduated from the Rhode Island School of Design on a full scholarship. She was also musical and played the piano. Sam was a businessman, but wasn’t driven by money. Medical research fascinated him. He went to work at Rhode Island Hospital, and he is credited with developing a test used in the identification of prostate cancer.
The Chesters live in a modest home in Garden City, but the inside is far from ordinary. We found Esther seated in front of her easel, with paintings covering the walls. She gave us one of her smiles and settled in to listen to our conversation. The topics covered the gamut from current events to art and places we have visited. In the course of our visit, Nancy Parkinson, Esther’s daughter from her first marriage, arrived and there was a change of shift for care providers. Sam introduced us as if we had been friends for years, and then gave me one of Esther’s prints, a painting of a harp. We left with an invitation to come back at anytime, which we intended to do.
In fact, on several stops at the nearby Garden City shopping center, we thought of dropping in, but somehow, with a couple in their late 90s, it didn’t seem right.
Then came Sam’s call, and I wished I pushed aside our reservations. I returned the call and got him on the second ring. He told me how Esther had not fared well in the past five days and the doctors had put her on morphine to ease the pain. He was at her side until her final breaths. He told her she would not need to wait too long. He would be joining her soon.
Sam wanted me to get something into the paper, but we wouldn’t be publishing again until after the service and burial that was held Sunday. I told him I would be there.
Reflecting, he philosophized how life has a way of opening doors and paths to us. He said for as short a time as we have known each other, he feels close to Carol and me. I said the feeling is reciprocal.
When I attended Sunday’s service, I realized I was not alone. The inspiration of Sam’s devotion to Esther and their love had touched many. You could feel their love wasn’t at an end. It was eternal.