Friday, January 30, 2009

Short life, long legacy

Popped by my workplace on Wednesday to drop off a document from my doctor.

The manager I needed to see was on a break when I arrived, so I decided to hang out rather than slip the document under the door.

After some time passed, I thought I would leave and come back later. I spotted what looked like a ream of paper on a lower shelf in bookcase in a hall, and reached for a sheet to use for a note.

I realized that what I thought were loose pages were bound into a manuscript. I picked it up and read the title:

"A SHORT LIFE: The Unexpurgated Memoirs of a Young Man with Cancer"

I remembered hearing about this book, but I had never seen it before. Completed in 1983, "A Short Life" was written by a man named Jim Slotnick, a former volunteer at the organization where I work.

I got permission to take the manuscript home, and finished reading it on Thursday.

Like the book's subtitle says, Jim Slotnick had cancer. A condition that initially presented as double vision a week before he began medical school was determined to be caused by a brain tumor months later. He was 25 years old at the time.

Slotnick writes:

I had always entertained the vague notion that I would enjoy perpetual good health. After all, I was on my way to medical school. I was going to be a hot-shot doctor, and we all know that doctors never get sick. I jogged four miles a day with regularity, had good eating habits, and I didn't ingest any recreational drugs. I had never taken medications of any kind. My body always responded whenever I needed it. I was only 25 years old; it would have been inappropriate for me to have any worries about my health. Little did I suspect how rudely my adolescent fantasy of immortality would be shattered.

Slotnick spends the first half of "A Short Life" reflecting on his adventures in the first 25 years of his life: growing up in the "slums" of Beverly Hills, his passion for baseball, hitchhiking across the U.S. and then back to California, and starting on his career studies. In the second half of the book, Mr. Slotnick tells how he fought cancer in his remaining three years.

Some of my experiences in life echo Slotnick's without quite matching up.

Slotnick was born in Buffalo, N.Y.; I was born in nearby Niagara Falls. While Slotnick was attending Beverly Hills High School, and beginning a path that would lead to medical school, I was beginning high school in the Antelope Valley and preparing for a career in journalism. Slotnick was a few years ahead of me, but we both were shaped by the wild times in which we came of age. When Slotnick speculates about a photograph of the Rolling Stones wearing dark sunglasses, I can envision the photo he may be describing.

And then there is the cancer thing.

The second half of "A Short Life" scared the wits out of me. As someone who is about to embark on a course of radiation therapy, I was terrified by the complications of therapy that Slotnick combatted, and recounts in his book.

How can I possibly describe the anger and frustration I now feel daily when I confront the unwillingness of my body to walk, talk, swallow, chew, hear, smile or move properly? The speech impediment I have is maddening in its ability to turn away any external evidence of my charm or intelligence into the type of drivel that a bunch of chimps would laugh at. My vocal chords are paralyzed; I have to yell in order to be heard over a distance of a few feet. My lips and tongue no longer want to move correctly. My speech is garbled, as well as inaudible. As a consequence, I can be thinking of a great joke or put-down, but all I can produce is an ineffective semblance of my conception. I am left feeling like a little human fission bomb: my most sophisticated thoughts and feelings are ready to implode within my already-damaged brain.

According to a note by Jon Slotnick, the author's brother, Jim Slotnick died 24 hours after completing edits on his manuscript.

Monday, Feb. 2 is the 26th anniversary of Jim Slotnick's death.

"A Short Life" is only part of the legacy that Slotnick left behind. Students at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA are eligible to seek a fellowship in Jim Slotnick's name, and those students are part of the team at the clinic where Jim Slotnick volunteered and where I work today.

Yesterday, a co-worker who worked at the clinic when Slotnick was a volunteer said that she feels privileged to have known him.

After reading "A Short Life," I feel as if I know Jim, too, and I am fortunate that he entered my life at this particular moment.

I'm not in any hurry to return the manuscript to the office. I've got six weeks of radiation therapy ahead of me. I want to keep Jim Slotnick's book close by.


  1. Hi Paul,

    THis is Sara Jane Slotnick. Jim was my brother, one year older, my guiding light and true supporter. I really am moved by your blog and wanted to say that I would be happy to meet you anytime. I loved my brother more than life itself and still have dreams about him; he is always well/a cancer survivor but something has changed and I am always concerned about him.
    Please let me know if you would like to be in contact.
    Best wishes,

    Sara Jane Slotnick

  2. Hey Paul, I have had the good fortune of spending part of my childhood growing up with Jim's brother Jon and spending a little time with Jim throughout his battle with cancer. Jim had a sweet spirit and a strong will. He was a great gift to the people who knew him and an inspiration to those who have somehow come in contact with his story. Jim, Jon & I had an incredible day at Hollywood Park (of all places) near the end of his journey in this life. I can't explain how I ended up seeing this article tonight, however I felt compelled to let you know that Jim Slotnick's spirit lives on within those of us who were lucky enough to of known him. All the best in your battle with cancer and kept Jim close to your heart & soul - live a long life and share your love with those people who have always and will be close to your heart.

  3. A friend of mine was recently diagnosed with HIV, his whole world came to a stop at that day, when he get the bad news, since then he is living life like a crazy, a lot of parties, casinos, etc.

  4. I also grew up with this particularly illusion, I have been many times about to die, but thanks god, not yet. and that story inspired me to continue faithing with this terrible real life..god bless you..regards

  5. Hi, listen, I'm pretty new on this blogosphere and Internet thing, so I don't know if there's a sort of "subscription" method that I can use in order to receive notifications of your new entries...? Thing is I enjoy reading your blog a lot and I'd like to be up to date with your posts!