Finally, I have done it....
I have been dreading this day for months....it has been eight months now. You deserved an explanation for my absence, but I could not even open up this blog. I could do nothing that brought me joy before this happened....photography, gardening, knitting, cooking, reading,...none of my regular hobbies. I don't know why, but I could not. I did not pick up my camera until several months ago, and am reteaching myself photography! Slowly, I am trying to remember how to have fun, and what I enjoyed.
This photo was taken in March of 2012, four months before John's diagnosis. He called in January to organize our whole family to meet over Easter, and celebrate our grandmother's (my father's mother) 95th birthday. My sister lives in Washington DC, my mother in Tennessee and John in Chicago, so it is no small feat for everyone to take off work, and travel down to Louisiana for a week. Although my grandmother is in good physical condition for a ninety-five year old woman, we were acutely aware it might be the last time we were all together with her, as these family visits are very infrequent. Time, money and distance make it extremely difficult. Look how pleased my brother looks that he pulled this one off! You can almost see love radiating from his face! Little did we know it was the last time we would all be together with him, and the last time my grandmother ever saw him. Fate turned the tables on us. How wonderful it is that we did spend that holiday together....eating delicious home cooked meals every night, jogging with my sister and his wife every morning, swimming and playing with his children and the cousins during the day, truly enjoying family... (all the while, he was unknowingly full of tumors) ...it was a week full of wonderful memories of John.
No one had an inkling that in three months our lives would be turned upside down.
John and my sister Mary
John and his daughter Clara
Some people can blog through grief. I admire those and obviously am not one of them. Somehow, the right words, the right moment, or how to start a post would not surface. So after eight months, I have decided there is no right way, and it is not going to get any better. If I want my blog to survive, (and I do) I am going to just have to jump in with both feet and "get back on the horse" so to speak.
Shrimp Fettuccine - one our many delicious meals!
With our mother, days after diagnosis and right before chemo started. Floating and swimming in Lake Michigan gave him relief from the pain that had rapidly descended upon him by now. My mother arrived right after he was diagnosed and was there the whole time.
On August 28th, my brother passed away from an all too brief battle with colon cancer. He was given the news in July...and began treatment immediately. Unfortunately, there were few symptoms before he was diagnosed; discomfort for about a few months that finally drove him to his general practitioner. After examining him, she immediately scheduled him for a Pet scan the very next day. Our father was diagnosed with stomach cancer at age 37 and his battle was also brief; six months. This question replays constantly in my mind: "How does lightning strike in the same place...what are the odds?" His doctor was on top of her game and given John's symptoms and family history, did what very few general practitioners would do when she sent him immediately for a Pet Scan instead of home with some antacid! I had the opportunity to speak with her after John's passing, and discovered that she followed her gut instinct when she sent him from basic, general exam straight to a Pet Scan. That was remarkable...and even more remarkable..(the first of a long series of kudos that go to the University of Chicago's Hospital and their medical staff) is the fact that they called him at home several days later on a Sunday, to give him the news...Stage Four Colon Cancer with tumors in his liver and lungs. They already had an appointment set up with a leading oncologist for Tuesday and massive chemo was started within the week of his diagnosis.
My brother and myself celebrating ninty five years with my grandmother!
I had a text on that Sunday to call him...that he had some bad news.
I knew it couldn't be health related...you don't get bad news regarding your health on a Sunday, right? Whew! When you get those kind of text, your mind quickly races over all the possibilities. Since I was sure it wasn't health related, it couldn't be that bad of news. When I called his home, his eleven year old daughter, Ava, answered the phone, and said he and her mother (his wife of sixteen years) were out for a walk. She said nothing and I didn't ask, but was left to wait and wonder. When he didn't return the call after several hours, I called again...Ava had forgotten to tell him I called! He said.."I have some bad news; some really bad news. I have colon cancer, stage four...it is not good. I asked what that meant and he basically said he was terminal, it was inoperable, but they hoped to buy him several years with chemo and shrinking the tumors. And who knows, maybe within that time frame, new treatment could emerge. It was such big news that you could not wrap your brain around it. So many questions we had...and such a state of shock you are in when your loved one tells you this. His biggest concern was the pain he was putting everyone else through, especially my mother and grandmother. That night, I sobbed for hours...I was inconsolable. All I could picture was the last memories I had of my father, swollen belly, yellow with jaundice, his empty, dead looking eyes, weak, dying and scary for a twelve year old child to see as her father. This could not happen to my baby brother. Because of my father's untimely death, John, my sister Mary and my mother are unusually close. I was the oldest at that time, the tender age of twelve, John was eight and Mary three - the hard times formed a very close knit family. I sobbed for hours that Sunday night...at one point I remember Elizabeth saying, "Mom, it is going to be OK" to which I replied, "No, it isn't". There was no pot of gold at the end of this rainbow, no good outcome possible....only some amount of time brought by intense chemo treatments and I already knew what the effects of those would be on my smart, handsome, happy brother.
Before I go further, I would be remiss if I didn't try to capture the essence of my brother's spirit for you..and this is why I have put this post off for so long. Because I cannot possibly do it justice...I do not possess the literary capacity or writing skills to do so. Posts often occur in my mind, that is why bloggers enjoy blogging...to give us a creative outlet for all these random thoughts that occur, but this post will not form. So my hope today is that when I sit to write, it will flow. This also happens when I blog and maybe today will be one of those days, but if not, at least I will jump this hurdle and take one more step to reclaiming somewhat of my life back. Grief takes joy away and you must make a conscious effort to create it again. I am finally coming to this realization...
John and my sister Mary
How do you describe him? I will start with the fact that I have always started with when talking about my brother, as it immediately sets him apart from others...He graduated from Princeton. (If you click on Princeton, it will take you to the article they wrote about him) I am and was always proud of him for that fact! Yes, he was about the smartest person I ever knew...my mother also said that about my Dad! Guess that gene was passed on to him. But, despite incredible intellect, what struck you most about John when you met him, was the intensity with which he focused on you and deep kindness that radiated from within as he conversed. His eyes always twinkled and they would rest on you with 100% of his concentration and attention. He always listened...an usual trait these days. Most of the time, people you speak with are thinking of what they are going to say next, but you always had the feeling that John really heard and cared about your thoughts. There wasn't a topic he couldn't discuss or debate, so conversations were always lively. In fact, he could argue a point and thoroughly convince you, then flip on a dime and completely argue the other side. And he was funny...there is a form of "Hunter humor" that was passed down from my grandfather to his sons and then to John... that dry sense of humor and sharp wit seems to be a male trait in our family. Laughter was frequent when I was with him. Surprisingly, the last three weeks of his life in the hospital were filled with much laughter, and that was largely due to his lighthearted comments about different situations. He would turn the most dire of situations around by a quick joke and a smile. My mother made the comment one time that she thought "the chemo sharpened his wit"! His one liners were constant, and he made the comment once that I was his "best audience and he should record me laughing so that he could play a laugh track for his corny jokes"! What was always impressive about John, is that you never realized his intellect off the bat as he always made one feel at ease with his quiet, but attentive, upbeat demeanor.
Underneath that calm, quiet, handsome facade was literally a human computer in the form of a brain! He had his choice of a Ph.D program and could have chosen a four year paid program to just about any university in the United States. He chose University of Chicago (which is now ranked fourth according to the US news and World college ranking) and went on to graduate with a Ph.D in Neurobiology. While studying there, he became interested in epilepsy research and completed his post doc work and finally earned a permanent position at University of Chicago on a prestigious research team. However, John's restless mind was constantly working and despite holding a full time position at U of C, juggling his family of three young girls and a wife, along with all the other problems of life in general, he managed to devote time to writing computer software. One of his big research dilemmas in epilepsy was managing huge quantities of information. Researching epilepsy means recording thousand of neurons in the brain for hours and days on end and organizing the data so it means something and can be analysed. There was no good software for this ten years ago, so John, doing what John did best (His motto is "lets do this thing"), created his own and "Matplotlib" was born.
MatPlotlib was created by John, for John, to help him analyse and store his millions of bits of data onto graphs, charts other visual analytical tools. Once created, and put into action, it worked! So well that John decided to "share" it with other scientists in his field. I specifically remember a visit to Chicago around eight years ago. John was at University of Chicago, working toward a cure for epilepsy, he experimented on "sea slugs". " Why sea slugs?" you ask...I asked that question too. John said that because they are a creature with very few neurons in the brain, it is much easier to track what actually happens to the neurons when you stimulate them or try to desensitize a neuron. Well, he had me at "sea slug" and I wanted to see his lab! So, one of the first things we did when I arrived in Chicago was to visit this lab of sea slugs! We started with a tour of the University of Chicago, and as we were making our way to the "sea slugs", John's cell phone would ring, he would check the call and then silence it...after about six or seven straight phone calls, I finally said, "John, what is going on...why is your phone ringing off the hook?" He kind of blushed and said nothing...after I pushed a little more, he said in that quiet little tone of his and laughed: "I am a celebrity of sorts in my little world." "What do you mean?".. I asked. He told me that he had created some software, and it was causing quite a stir on the Internet. All the phone calls were from people wanting to talk about it. That might have been the last time we truly discussed his software work at length. We had many conversations, but they always revolved around how his children were doing, where they were going on vacation, how great his dog was...you know, what you normally talk about with your brother. I never realized how "matplotlib" had taken off and snowballed into a worldwide success. He never told me...but that is my brother. He was funny, kind, and now I know...humble; and when were together, it was all about family time, which is how it should be. In fact, he received, posthumously, the 2012 Distinguished Service Award from Python Software foundation. A foundation has been organized and those that use Matplotlib can donate if they wish to a fund that will educate his children...people from all over the world have donated and left comments such as the following:
John and Booker (nephew)
Now that I am wading gingerly into the water...it is not so bad. My blogging plan is to continue documenting my thoughts about my brother...I have only scratched the surface today. Along with comments here and there about John, there is so much to document about our own lives. It is something I like to do, and will regret later if I let it go. Each year I have my blog printed into a book and this is our journal of the year. It is called blog2print, and they do a great job. It is about the only form of documentation that makes its way out of the computer!
John and myself - Easter 2012
I am still heartbroken, and although they say time heals all wounds, it will not happen with this one. Hopefully, the intense, deep heartache I have will begin to fade at some point. Although, I am not sure I want it too, as memories are all I have of him. Your family loves you unconditionally, and vice versa. We went through some very tough times together and our relationship, although long distance, was one of deep mutual love and respect for each other. At the young age of 44, John was just beginning to see the wonderful fruits of his efforts ripen, not only professionally, but also within his young daughters...their talents beginning to surface and shine . I often tell people this about John as well; some men have hobbies and outside interests like golf or hunting...John's main interest outside of work was his family - his three girls and his wife. So it a particularly bitter pill to swallow, as I mourn not only for my own loss but for his family's loss of their husband and father every day. Having walked in their shoes, I know the huge hole this leaves and the ripples that affect you on a daily basis for your entire life. Honestly, my grief is much exacerbated by that fact. His wife does an amazing job of raising their girls and keeping happiness in their lives despite her own intense pain. I know now why she was the chosen one from many who wished they had received a proposal from John. Additionally, she texts my mother, sister and myself everyday with photos of daily events and happenings. This is a constant source of support that we have all come to lean upon. Were it not for our daily communication, I think I would go stir crazy in grief sometimes. I also mourn for the world's loss of someone who contributed so much and expected so little in return...to have created and given freely open sourced software that is now found and used by universities, companies, and individuals worldwide for the good of mankind, is a trait seldom found in individuals these days. I mourn for the man who.... loved good wine, unsolvable problems, dynamic conversation, sitting at the children's table, to "get this thing done", to jump in a pile of leaves as an adult, fine dining, to swim on the shores of Lake Michigan, was an Amazon shopaholic, a master of chess, had no enemies, always held his wife's hand, became a soccer coach by Googling the rules, had a five o'clock shadow, loved a hot bath, made the best home made apple pie, crust and all, favorite book was "Tell me Why", agreed to be my daughters Godfather despite the fact he wasn't even Catholic and lamented about the fact that he wasn't "good" at it because didn't know what he supposed to do, was called Big John even though he was a small man, always had twinkly eyes, wore a Superman cape for months at a time when he was a child, was just beginning to grey, and most of all could always bring a smile to my face.
Before I go, I want to leave you with a story that captures the essence of the John's spirit and how he fought "this bastard" as he called it. He entered the hospital for chemo and within two days things began to spiral rapidly downhill....we quickly found ourselves in Intensive care and and unimaginably, things were much worse than just stage four cancer...John's entire lining of his stomach down to his intestines had air bubbles...there is a fancy medical term but I don't remember it, and we were now worried that these bubbles would perforate and the contents of his stomach and intestines leak into his system...even the doctors seemed amazed by the severity of this case. It was hair raising to say the least, and my mother, his wife and myself slept on the floor in ICU in his room that night...I curled up under a desk so no-one would step on me! Surprisingly, the staff of University of Chicago let us! We had to have broken 100 rules, but John was a "special" patient...anyone that spoke to him quickly realized that! Anyway, we made it to the next morning....through the next day and I had night duty that night. Needless to say, I was tired, but got little sleep as I watched him the entire night in fear. However, around 6:00 AM I heard a strong voice coming from his bed...it said, "Layne, raise the shades - It is six o'clock and it is time to kick cancer's ass! And that is how he approached his days until the end...he never gave up, never complained and never said "why me?". Not once. Rarely do you have the chance to see goodness to the core in your sibling...and I thank God every day that I was allowed that opportunity.
John Davidson Hunter - March 5th, 1968-August 28th, 2012
Here are some other links that are noteworthy:
Key Note Speech at ScyPy 2012 - John's last speech: He was keynote speaker at the ScyPy conference in Austin. This was in July of 2012..weeks before he was diagnosed.
He was experiencing pain at this time but wanted to give this presentation so delayed his doctor visit until this conference. It is a great speech and remarkable given the fact that he was in stage four of colon cancer at the time.
MatPlotlib website - Here you can read about the software John created.
John Hunter Memorial Fund - created to benefit his three young children - you can read comments from around the world from those that used his software. You can also donate if you wish.
Technical Discovery Blog A very nice post written about John
There is so much to share, but here is a recent article written by his former employer regarding one of the applications John's software was used to help with - the Hubble Space Center...a representative spoke at John's memorial and shared how John affected the program. The article below was written by John's department head at University of Chicago in response to another article of which I do not have a copy.
Footnote to the Sublime
I smiled broadly when I read Elizabeth Kessler’s (Ph.D., ’06) article praising the Hubble Space Telescope’s spectacular images (Mar-Apr, 2013), because I knew that they were brought to us, in part, by one of the University of Chicago’s many silent heroes. In late 2004, the telephone rang in my clinical neurophysiology imaging laboratory. It was Dr. Perry Greenfield, the manager of the scientific software group working on the Hubble Space Telescope, who was looking for my young neuroscience post-doc, John Hunter (Neurobiology Ph.D.,’01). The Hubble community had a formidable problem to solve: how could they send their spectacular images of the universe to astronomers all over the world so that they could be received and analyzed on their various computer systems—Windows, Apple, LINUX and UNIX. They had hired a private company to solve this problem, but the project failed to meet the diverse needs of the world’s astronomers.
Throughout his graduate work at the University of Chicago, John Hunter had written many graphing routines in Python, a language that runs on all of these systems. He stored them in a personal library on the web he called Matplotlib. Occasionally, other graduate students would ask if they could use his programs for their own work. Word got out, and after a while, John had thousands of programmers and researchers from all areas of science and business using his programs. Perry Greenfield was one of them. He thought that John’s Matplotlib could be the phoenix that could bring this project out of the ashes. John asked me if he could take a hiatus from our work, and I enthusiastically said yes. The Space Telescope Science Institute allocated a handful of programmers to collaborate with John on this, and a few months later they had an extensive program for analyzing Hubble images throughout the world, powered by John’s Python programs. (Matplotlib now has over 1.4 million downloads.)
We have all benefited because of John Hunter’s belief in the altruism of the open-source programming community. John may be viewing the sublime beauty of the cosmos from a different perspective, because he tragically died of cancer last year. Still, his work lives on in all of us.
V. Leo Towle, Ph.D., Department of Neurology