Wearing a denim jacket bedazzled with purple studs, Sam Koenigsberg looked out at more than 100 people assembled for his 33rd birthday party, and then up at the larger-than-life tumor on the projection screen.

“So yeah, I have brain cancer,” Koenigsberg said.

He chuckled, a little nervous. A few guests laughed with him.

Last November, Koenigsberg had his first seizure. Soon, he was having as many as 12 seizures in a day. In January, an MRI uncovered anaplastic astrocytoma – a rare malignant brain tumor. Koenigsberg immediately underwent surgery to remove about 70 percent of the mass, and in the months since, he has undergone radiation and chemotherapy treatment. He has taken steroids to prevent dangerous swelling in his brain and medical marijuana to treat his nausea and fatigue.

His prognosis is uncertain, but his doctors have predicted he could live between two and eight years.

Koenigsberg had planned this party for months in particular detail, from the purple contact lenses he was wearing to the slideshow of images he was narrating. A picture of the radiation machine. A picture of himself on the table for treatment, wearing a white netted mask over his face. A picture of the red beams from the radiation machine targeted at his head.


“Now when I’m talking to a person, every individual, I think about their individual brain,” he told the guests. “Your heart, your liver, everything that is you, your identity, is in your brain, and it’s crazy.

“This is a celebration of brains.”


Purple was never one of Koenigsberg’s favorite colors.

“I didn’t even have any purple shirts,” he said.

Koenigsberg isn’t sure how it started – maybe radiation, maybe his combination of medications, maybe fate, maybe his own mind. But suddenly he was drawing purple connections through the past and the present, out of his life and into his cancer treatment.


Sam Koenigsberg smokes prescribed medical marijuana at his home. Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

Sam Koenigsberg smokes prescribed medical marijuana at his home.
Brianna Soukup/Staff Photographer

The lavender farm he visited in New Mexico before starting radiation. Prince, one of his favorite musicians. A song he liked by R&B artist Tinashe from her album “Amethyst.” The title of his high school yearbook, also “Amethyst.” The quartz itself, which is often connected with sobriety and enlightenment in mythology and Buddhism. Its deep purple color, which can be attributed to natural radiation in the earth.

He felt exhilarated, not cancerous.

“It was keeping me inspired,” Koenigsberg said. “I started making what was initially this horrible, horrible diagnosis be something really fun and artistic.”

He started bringing a CD player to radiation treatments, where the technicians would play the Tinashe song on repeat for him while he held an amethyst. His stepmother painted all the doors on her house purple – a shade called “Purple Rain,” in homage to Prince. He created a mural on his living room wall with purple paint swatches and doctors’ business cards, a purple pot leaf and a sprig of lavender. And he decided to throw an amethyst-themed birthday party to celebrate with loved ones and help them see what he called a “purple vision.”

“I don’t know how long I have to live, but sometimes it can be a great thing,” Koenigsberg said. “It can really open your eyes in a certain way. We all think about it. This is something we’re all going through in our own way at different rates. This is really no different for anyone else, but it’s sort of sped up for me.”



Almost entirely with donations from friends and family, Koenigsberg rented O’Maine Studios on Danforth Street in Portland. His sister Liz Koenigsberg, one of the owners of Petite Jacqueline in Portland, organized catering. When he imagined an art installation, friends from across the country created pieces for him to display.

At his bathed-in-purple birthday party, Sam Koenigsberg dances with his grandmother Jaqueline McLain.

At his bathed-in-purple birthday party, Sam Koenigsberg dances with his grandmother Jaqueline McLain.

A Portland native, Koenigsberg was voted “Most Artistic” in his class at Deering High School. At Carlton College in Minnesota, he studied English and wrote short stories. He lived in the Midwest after graduation, in part trying to produce a feature-length film with friends. He and his friends once built an ice-fishing house on a frozen lake as part of a winter art festival.

His friends reeled at the news of his diagnosis.

“It made me think about what it means to live your life without knowledge when it will end,” said Arielle Adams, a longtime friend. “If there’s anybody who would be good at that, it would be Sam.”


Last Thursday evening, Koenigsberg set up chairs and purple lights and left bars of amethyst soap as party favors. He checked every detail and greeted every guest.


“Sam has not had a vehicle to express his creativity in a long time,” said Gretchen Larman, his mom. “He has all this artistic energy, and this has been a vehicle for that. It’s not just a party. It’s a piece of art.”

The partygoers gathered around the projection screen for the slideshow, then three short films by friends. One was set to the sounds from an MRI machine. Another was based on a surreal short story that Koenigsberg wrote about swallowing gum. The third was footage from the movie he once hoped to make with friends in Minneapolis. When her son – almost 10 years younger, his head not yet shaved – appeared on the screen, Larman wiped tears from her face. Koenigsberg interjected through the film, trying to explain its abstract inspiration to slightly puzzled viewers.

“This is about a great architect who wants everything to stop building,” he said.


As the films gave way to music, Koenigsberg and his girlfriend, Molly Adams, guided a group of friends to his apartment, where he pointed to the radiation mask tacked up on his living room mural. He clicked “play” on a Six Three Mafia rap song, then stepped onto the deck to exhale sweet marijuana smoke into the night air.

Bouncing quickly into the next room to check on his guests, Koenigsberg ushered them back to the party. He interrupted the dancing to tell everyone a detail he forgot during his slideshow – he had traveled to Minneapolis to invite Prince to the party, only to find out the musician had died that day.


While his friends retook the dance floor, Koenigsberg took over as DJ. His dad, Steve Koenigsberg, paused to kiss his son on the cheek.

Bouncing as he selected the next track, the anxious host finally relaxed. He turned the music over to a friend. The studs on his jacket shone as he ran to the dance floor.

In the purple light, he jumped up and down to the beat.

A picture of the late musician Prince, made using photos of Sam Koenigsberg's cancer cells, hangs on the wall at his party. Prince and the color purple have played a big part in Koenigsberg's life, especially since his diagnosis.

A picture of the late musician Prince, made using photos of Sam Koenigsberg’s cancer cells, hangs on the wall at his party. Prince and the color purple have played a big part in Koenigsberg’s life, especially since his diagnosis.


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