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July 1, 2006

Ambassador to the World

Sam was also known as “Mr. Experiment” for his amazing career at The Experiment in International Living. You know you’ve accomplished something when more than 50 people come on a 4th of July weekend five and a half months after you died in order to celebrate your life.

I arrived at 1 pm sharp to the River Garden in downtown Brattleboro. There were already 20-30 people there and live music wafted through a slight breeze off the Connecticut River. Pat greeted me, “Did you bring the CDs?” Oops, left them in the car. Other greetings, nods of acknowledgment…I wanted to scoot out to get the music (to be played during the musician’s breaks) but conversations unfolded around me, drawing me in. Lee was explaining the choice of entertainment to someone: “It’s Sam’s Brazilian connection; he has a Brazilian family too.” I escaped but nature called, so I ducked into the toilet. As I sat there (!), the live Brazilian music permeated my awareness. I had a sudden flash of Sam as a young man, dancing in a fancy classical manner. I watched him linger through a few slow turns and the vision faded.

Mingling with the crowd after returning with Marvin Gaye and Josh Groban, the murmur of people talking, laughing, eating and drinking conveyed the pleasure people experienced. “Sam always brought people together, continually introducing us one to another.” People drifted from conversation to conversation…an easy flow of interaction. People were already telling stories, reminiscing, inquiring about when and how Sam had come into each other’s lives, as well as striking up new relationships and engaging anew on familiar themes. Lee called for everyone’s attention an hour or so into the event. “Sam planned this party, and provided for it. We’ve all heard of each other, so it feels like we’ve already met even if we haven’t.”

Tom immediately got in on the action: “Don’t believe everything you hear!”

Lee spoke extemporaneously based on the timeline of Sam’s life she had developed for Sam’s obituary. It seems Sam found his life’s calling while in the army. There he worked in the information and communication office. His employment history is checkered with quite an odd collection of jobs, including Filene’s Basement. “He didn’t last long,” shouted Phil, “only one Christmas season!” Sam spent a few years in California with a sailboat company run by his niece Jennifer and her first husband. “He didn’t like water and didn’t know to swim.”

But his home, the place where he laid his roots and cultivated his spirit, was in Putney Vermont at The Experiment. “ I don’t know who’s not here,” John (a.k.a. Charlie, who came from Chicago) mused, explaining that he didn’t know what to expect, who would actually be present. “It’s a great affair.” Lee continued: There were “endless parties at his house” which obviously many people in the crowd had attended, based on the number of chuckles. :-) His neighbors, Paul and Karen, spoke of hearing the parties from next door and even feeling the vibrations from bass music rocking one of their beds. Their homes are deep enough in the woods, mind you. There are more stories about these parties than anyone will ever remember. Sam took in the young people who had “social” or “adjustment” issues with their home stays, and invited numerous and myriad people over frequently: students, staff, neighbors, friends, friends-of-friends. So many people, and so often, that one month he got a phone bill totaling some $500! (This figure was disputed, perhaps it was “only” $240 – in 1970’s dollars!) There were calls to Egypt, Brazil, other countries in South America and the Middle East. Sam’s ingenious solution? He had a pay phone installed in his house! Right next to the bathroom, accompanied by a bowl for dime donations.

Sam was also terrific with kids. He was an “uncle” and refuge to Paul and Karen’s kids, taking them to the movies, driving them to school, teaching them to drive. He was a “third parent” to Chris, Lee and Greg Neary. Chris learned how to “give the finger” from Sam, a skill she delighted in using with anyone and everyone: her first display being to a school bus full of children. “My parents were thrilled.” They had driving lessons as early as seven, “No wonder,” someone’s spouse muttered in the background. Sam’s sister Edith recounted Sam coming over while Jennifer was a toddler: “Sam always brought people.” This time, the buddy Sam brought (Phil fervently denied it was him) and Sam took care of Jennifer while Edith went out. She returned to find all three of them on the sidewalk, the boys about 40 yards apart and Jennifer in the middle between them. She’d start walking towards one of the boys, who’d say, “No, no, go to him” pointing the other way. She’d turn around and start in the opposite direction and that boy would say, ‘Oh no, not this way, go to him. "Well, Edith continued, “she’d filled her pants and neither of them wanted anything to do with her!”

Lee’s list of fond characteristics was long: “When he laughed his eyes closed.” Many people recounted variations of Sam’s sudden bursts into laughter or song. “When I met Sam for the first time, I said, I’m Eric Anderson. Sam said, ‘You’re Eric Anderson? HA HA HA!’” Lee also recalled that Sam “loved to dance and would find any excuse to do it, he loved jokes (the racier the better) and eggs-over-easy, pigs-in-a-blanket (which he loved to make himself), margaritas, Tom Collins, merlot, whatever.” VW bugs, yellow or convertible, always remind Lee of Sam (another murmur of recognition), certain songs, such as What’s Going On. Chris said “there are just so many remarkable memories,” including driving golf balls off Sam’s back deck into the sheep fields below while being scored by “the Ukrainian judge” (Sam holding up a large scorecards; then everyone got one). She’d heard To Sir with Love on the way to today’s soireé, and recited this line for us: “How do you thank someone who takes you from crayons to perfume?”

Sam traveled as frequently as possible, to as many varied places as he could. Including escorting a student to Azerbaijan, “which he loved to say.” Lee can’t quite match Sam’s baritone, but her imitation worked, laughter reinforcing memory. “He sure did,” said Pat with a grin.

Phil confessed to being one of the many strays that Sam took in. Sam was excellent “at providing a haven for people who are in-between things,” he said, adding that this seemed to be characteristic of many people who worked for The Experiment. (hmmmmm…) :-) “If Sam were here, “ Tom intoned, “there would have already been some inappropriate remarks.” This echoed a comment Paul made earlier about the nametags. The backings were not so easy to remove: “Sam would have a few choice words to say about these!” “One of the things that was so endearing about Sam," continues Tom, “is that you never knew what would be next.” Someone else’s spouse learned this after meeting some new people through Sam, who ended his introduction with a reference to a particular virgin experience at Watt Pond. (ahem)

Eric (who came from Switzerland!) described his visits to Sam at Eden Park. His first visit was in October of 2002, when Sam had been there about a year. Sam was intent on a video when Eric entered but immediately turned it off and they talked for an hour. Eric explained that he usually stopped by the receptionist’s desk on his way out, and commented that he “always left with an uplifted spirit. I told her, I’ve just been visiting with Sam Achziger and my spirit is uplifted!” She responded, “A lot of people say that.” It wasn’t just Sam’s visitors whose spirits were uplifted. Sam hosted a Thursday night drink-a-thon with the nursing staff (some of whom may even have overimbibed!) They got to see Sam’s racy side, and loved it, loved him. Mary and Coco came today, it was good to see them. Sam’s personality, sense-of-humor, and deep humanism wasn’t altered at all: either by moving into a nursing home or coping with the declining ability to move parts of his own body or even speak.

“As he was able to say fewer and fewer words, Sam would save his energy for the really important ones.” Robin and Dave couldn’t recall the context, but they do remember Sam saying “balls" so clearly that they were shocked, “he couldn’t really mean that, could he?” Oh yes he could! There were a couple of anecdotes about the frustration of not being able to understand him during the last months of his life. Eric recalls telling Sam, “I’m leaving now,” and struggling multiple times to catch Sam’s response. He finally went to the nurse’s station for help. She hunkered down and put her ear right next to Sam’s mouth and finally got it, he was saying, “Ok.” Pat had a similar story, referring to Sam’s wonderful attitude. At the end of one visit, Pat told Sam, “We’re leaving now. We’re worried about you but we know you’re ok.” Again, it required several repetitions to understand Sam’s response: “I’m fine.” But that was how he was: he never wanted anyone to worry about him, he wanted us all to know he really was fine.

Tom finally had enough of not being able to communicate with Sam and told him, “You’re Helen Keller and I’m Annie Sullivan.” Tom figured out how to construct a letter board with the letters arranged on the basis of frequency. So the top row included the most commonly used letters, the second the next most-commonly used, and so on through five lines. The day Tom took it for Sam to try out, he explained its use. “I point to the first row and you indicate ‘yes’ the letter is in that row, or ‘no’ the letter is not in that row.” By this time, Sam’s ability to convey his yes/no response was through a slightly delayed and subtle hand squeeze. “If the row is a ‘yes’ then I go across the row until I get a ‘yes’ for the right letter.” After explaining this, they try it out. Tom points at the first row, no. The second? Yes. The first letter? No. Until he lands on F. The audience roared. (So much for unpredictability!) Tom continues, replaying the entire scenario, just as he and Sam did on that day. This row? This letter? U. The audience laughed harder. Next letter? C. Some people are already laughing so hard they’ve got tears in their eyes. Next? K. Do you think Sam was done? No. Is there another letter? Y. O. U. The applause that followed was sheer pleasure at the power of Sam’s inimitable spirit and the joy of having shared such friendships with him.

There were tears, of course. Folks held them in as best they could (even though everyone murmured that it was ok to cry). Lee reminded us, “This is meant to be a happy affair. Sam wanted to have food, music, drinks and all of us here. He wants us to remember that we’re all connected to each other.” Jesse continued playing beautiful Brazilian music throughout, complementing the sound and feel of each person’s voice and words, contributing to the overall mood.

During the last several months of his life, one of the things that gave Sam the most pleasure was a remote-controlled fart machine, given to him by Tom – who tried to foist it off on Paul, or maybe it was Paul trying to get some guilt to stick on Tom? My notes are unclear, either way seems possible. :-) This technologically-advanced whoopee cushion emitted 12-14 different fart sounds. Sam could use it to interrupt a conversation or get people's attention any time he wanted. They mounted it on the back of his wheelchair and premiered it with Barbara Dirks, who – upon the blast – said, “Sam’s stomach must be upset.” Late one night, Tom got a call at home from an aide at Eden Park. “The fart machine won’t stop!” The laughter was practically continuous by this point, with dips and rises in volume. “We took the battery out and it’s still going!” Tom went to the rescue; it turned out they’d only taken the battery out of the remote, not the actual fart-producing unit. The nurse had listened to it continually while feeding Sam his dinner. Now I know why it stopped working!

When Sam died, the Eden Park newsletter that Sam founded ran the announcement and changed the name of the newsletter to

Sam Achziger News.jpg

When Lee announced this, there was sustained applause from everyone present, which also included the newlyweds (by five weeks) who became engaged in Sam’s room with him as a witness last Christmas Eve.

Eric shared something with us about Sam’s name that he said he’d just figured out. In German, "acht means eight, achtzig means eighty, and achtziger means “'a person in their eighties.'” Sam Achziger would have been 81 this past Wednesday. Paul’s toast characterized all of our times with Sam: “We shared and enjoyed his life and spirit, we’re here to toast his life and spirit.” Anne, who never met Sam, said, “I’ve heard so much about him, it’s almost like I knew him. There are so many wonderful stories. It’s a bit like a Polish wake. You get together to pay your respects and then you go in back and reminisce, tell stories. It’s a celebration and that’s exactly what this is. I’ve enjoyed it.”

John agreed: “It’s what today is supposed to be.”

Lee was doing the rounds, “Last call for alcohol!"

Josh Groban crooned in the background.

People continued to mingle . . .

Posted by Steph at July 1, 2006 6:55 PM

Comments

Stephanie...what a wonderful last tribute to Sam! Even though I could not come to the Celebration, you made me feel that I was there. What an angel you have been...THANK YOU!

Posted by: Nona Dale at July 4, 2006 10:51 AM

Dear Steph,

I finally had a chance to look at my mail and found your essay on Sam's farewell. I cherish it . You captured so much of Sam's life and what he meant to everyone. His laugh and smile captured all who came in contact with him. What a better world we would have if the rest of us had just a little bit more of Sam in us. We probably try but it falls so short of what he gave.....let's try to do better.

Dad

Posted by: Dave Kent at July 4, 2006 1:46 PM

Hi Steph,
Paul and I just wanted to leave our "last impression" of Sam where everyone could see it and knows Sam still lives inside all of us. We had a huge house fire while we were sleeping. the fire marshall said if we were inside for 90 seconds longer, we wouldn't have made it out. something (other than the faint sound of our smoke detector) woke Paul up. and gave him the courage to pull my unconcious body out of the house. i strongly beleive that it was Sam and other guardian angels who got us out that morning.
i thank you so much for having Paul and I at the party for Sam. we think of him and miss him every day. we all just have to remember that inside us, he still lives.

Posted by: Dani(elle) Waters at July 4, 2006 10:43 PM

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