A Vigil for my Father, Leonard Shlain
May 10, 2009
As I write this, my father, Leonard Shlain, is dying of a brain tumor. A couple of weeks or months ago, I might have said “living with a brain tumor.” But now that is just not the case. I write from the top floor of the beautiful home in Mill Valley that he built and helped design with San Francisco sparkling to my left and Mount Tamalpais sleeping to my right. My father is in the bed behind me. I am sitting at his desk. He drifts in and out of consciousness (mostly appearing to sleep) and this is where my family is holding vigil.
I was going to tell the editor that I cannot write this week or next or maybe for a while. I may still do that, I don’t know. But I cannot be the only one in pain. I thought maybe if I shared this sorrow that it might make me feel better or maybe it could even make someone else feel better who is going though something similar. Also, he is an unrepentant ham and when I asked him if he wanted me to devote this week’s column to him, he squeezed my hand and grunted one of the three words that he uttered that entire day which was yes.
As I write, I push the monitor to the side and keep my hands on the keyboard while I stare out the windows. I’m looking at the birds flying over the water and I can see the boats and Sausalito. What happens when we die? Is he afraid? Is he still angry for being snatched from the living two weeks before the birth of my sister’s child with ten more books to write?
Many people say that their dad is amazing. My dad is the real deal. He used to write me long letters filled with wisdom when I was at camp as a kid and in college on a yellow legal pad with his signature green pen. Sometimes they were typed. When we were young, he would entertain us and our classmates by bringing a human brain to our elementary school in a white bucket of formaldehyde during show and tell. In the backyard, instead of a swing set, he built a stained-glass geodesic dome with a hot tub in the middle (ah, Marin in the 70s). Dinner conversations typically spanned from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle to politics, literature to an incredibly dirty joke. When he came home after a hard day’s work as a young surgeon- saving lives for a living-, occasionally he would have dried blood spatters still on his glasses as he would diagram the operation of the day on a napkin. Later, his diagrams became more adventuresome and expanded to thought experiments that included what it would be like to sit astride a beam of light and how that corresponded with Picasso’s rose period, blue period. This, and when he took me to New York to see the museums, was what inspired him to write his first book Art & Physics. Alphabet vs. The Goddess and Sex, Time and Power followed.
My father sometimes described his experience of life as that of him climbing up a mountain and that there is some old guy on top throwing boulders at him. He always sought the unattainable and would achieve it. He grew up in Detroit Michigan, the son of immigrant parents, graduated high school at sixteen, medical school when he was twenty three, became a Captain in the Army got married and moved to Mill Valley in the late sixties. When as a surgeon he started writing a book about art and physics, he was initially met with disdain from experts in those fields who would say “How dare a surgeon should write about these two fields, neither of which he is an expert?” Oh but he was an expert and the books that line the walls of his house attest to it. One huge boulder was being diagnosed with non-Hodgkins lymphoma at the age of thirty seven. He went into remission and survived.
It was this first bout with cancer that in a profound way set him free. He saw every day after that as gift. He pushed himself far out of the boundaries of being a doctor by writing his books. He was hungry and greedy for life experience, never wanting to miss a thing. It wasn’t until thirty some odd years later (three years ago) that he would be struck by a string of diseases, lymphatic interstitial pneumonia, MDS, leukemia and then for the grand finale a stage four terminal glioblastoma brain cancer for which he had emergency surgery this fall. We, his incredible wife, Ina Gyemant, my brother, sister and I, gathered around him in horror as he awoke in the hospital and couldn’t speak. “We’re all big satellite dishes, dad. We can hear everything you’re thinking and want to say.” He eventually regained his speech and we took a huge family trip to Hawaii. Ironically, when the tumor hit he was finishing up his last book “Leonardo’s Brain” based on Leonardo Da Vinci. So for the last nine months as I edited the manuscript and he gave us blow by blow details of his health, all we talked about was Leonardo’s brain in some form or another.
In addition to setting an extraordinary example as a person, he was an exceptional father. When I was twelve my father would repeatedly sit me down a say a version of that quote I always see attributed to Nelson Mandela or Maya Angelou— about being brilliant and gorgeous and how dare one not be as great as he can possibly be. He would say “You have brains, beauty and talent and can do and be anything you want.” He told me that a great power would come with all this and that in the coming years I would be testing it out and that I had to use it wisely. I believed him and I still do. He gave all of us Shlain kids an unbelievable confidence and daring. Anyone who knows us (my sister Tiffany, the filmmaker, and my brother Jordan, the doctor) knows this to be the case. (He also told us other truisms, such as to never trust a man with thin lips or who wears a pinky ring or who has to say more than one sentence to describe what he does for a living.)
I asked him the other day while I was helping him add quotes to his newest book: “Are you afraid to die?” “No” he said.” I’m not afraid to die. I just want to live.” Last Monday, when we got the news that the Avastin (the tumor-shrinking drug he was taking) was no longer working, my stepmother told me that he said he wanted to call his parents who passed away long ago. He wanted to tell them the horrible news that he was going to die and that there were no more bullets in the chamber to fight all the diseases.
When he is actually no longer here, something I’ve been preparing and dreading and yet still cannot fathom, like all the most important events in my life, I know he’ll be the first person I’ll want to call to tell him the news.
Update: Leonard Shlain passed away Monday morning, May 11th at his home in Mill Valley. For information about the memorial go to www.leonardshlain.com.