Frank Lewenberg, 67; lawyer wrote book about life after cancer diagnosis
Neither mincing words nor making readers wait, Frank Lewenberg lets his doctor deliver the bad news in the opening words of his memoir, “Interesting Times: The Story of My Battle With Brain Cancer.”
“Frank, it’s not what we thought it was. It’s malignant.”
Up until that moment on Feb. 28, 2007, Mr. Lewenberg was the kind of guy many people envied, especially those who, like him, had recently passed 60. A longtime lawyer in Newton, he went on runs that stretched for miles and bike rides that lasted longer, and he skied with the agility of someone decades younger.
“My life plummeted from tranquility to turmoil in a blink. Just like that,” he wrote, adding that “with my illness I entered a merciless new reality I refer to as ‘Interesting Times.’ Life as I knew it no longer existed.”
A new life emerged, as did his memoir, which he e-mailed to all interested, asking each reader to donate money to brain cancer research and patient care. Mr. Lewenberg, who by doing so raised thousands of dollars for Massachusetts General Hospital, died Oct. 25 in his Waltham home. He was 67 and had lived most of his life in Newton.
Mass. General honored Mr. Lewenberg last year as one of the 100 individuals and groups, recognized annually, “whose diligence and discoveries, philanthropy and passion have helped advance the fight against cancer,” the hospital said on its website.
“Frank approached everything he did with passion and commitment,” his brother Peter of Newton said in a eulogy at a service last month. Peter added that “when skiing, he wasn’t just a good skier, he was a skier’s skier.”
In the 157 pages of his memoir, Mr. Lewenberg describes a journey into the world of hospitals and cancer treatment. He offers advice to all who find themselves on a path that, in his recounting, could be unpleasant and scary, but always punctuated with moments of pure joy and insight.
Although he lived longer than many with a glioblastoma brain tumor, facing the finality of the diagnosis prompted reflection: “I examined life as I had lived and experienced it for the past 60 plus years in minute detail,” he wrote. “Who was I?”
One answer was that “when faced with cancer, Dad did not change who he was,” his daughter Wendy Etkind of Belmont said in a eulogy. “In fact, he showed all of the same positive characteristics that he had before he learned he was sick, to an even stronger degree.”
The second of four sons, Franklin Lewenberg grew up in Newton, to which he returned after law school to practice with his father. He handled workers’ compensation cases, and later real estate transactions, wills, and estates.
Along with Newton, the major points of Mr. Lewenberg’s compass were Hull, where he sailed; New Hampshire, where he skied; and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where he met Betsy Singer.
He was a sophomore and she was a freshman when he noticed her across the cafeteria. They met when a milkshake he was drinking fell off a table, landing at her feet.
“I looked at the milkshake and then at him and said, ‘Good move,’ being the brash New Yorker I was back then,” she recalled. Within a few months, she wrote to a friend, “I think I’ve met the man I’m going to marry.”
In his memoir, Mr. Lewenberg said that “it was not until I was thinking back as I was writing this book, that I realized I loved Betsy from the moment I first saw her across a room.”
They married in 1967, just after he graduated. Three years later, he graduated from the University of Cincinnati College of Law and returned to Newton.
“He always told me the greatest thing he ever did was having kids,” their son, Dan of Sharon, said in a eulogy. “Family was what mattered most and we played as a family.”
Mr. Lewenberg “was very deliberate in nurturing our individuality, and as we each left the house and started on our own, he tried his best to keep his opinions about our matters to himself,” his daughter Carolyn of Boston said in a eulogy. “But we all would seek his counsel from time to time.”
Although he brought an attention to detail to everything from painting a house to fixing a broken car window, his enthusiasm for life was most evident in his physical activities.
“Moving through the world in athletic and often skillful ways was his passion,” Carolyn said in her eulogy.
“His body took him where he wanted to go,” she said. “Everyone who took a run, sail, ride, hike, kayak, snowshoe, whatever with Dad always got a dose of his enthusiasm. It was infectious, and very consistent.”
During the past few years as he endured a litany of treatments, Mr. Lewenberg was able to resume running and skiing for a while. “We even purchased season passes for next season,” he wrote in 2009. “What a show of confidence!”
On the pages of his memoir, meanwhile, he displayed endurance and agility to match his hours on the roads and slopes. His efforts, he wrote, were on behalf of his readers.
“I feel the need to share my story rather than trying to hide what has happened to me in the interest of our privacy,” Mr. Lewenberg wrote. “I hope to assist other patients to deal with brain cancer — a guide to assist them through their own ‘Interesting Times.’ ”
In addition to his wife, Betsy, his daughters Wendy and Carolyn, his son, Dan, and his brother Peter, Mr. Lewenberg leaves another daughter, Debby Hohler of Needham; two other brothers, Stephen of Newton and Roger of Hull; and four grandchildren, one of whom was born the day after his funeral.
Mr. Lewenberg concluded one section of his memoir by writing: “Quitting is not an option! Wish me luck.”
He had always believed in a strong finish.
“The runs always ended with a sprint. . . . He’d pick a stop sign or a tree in the distance and tell me to give it all I had,” Wendy, who joined him on many an outing, said in her eulogy. “ Then he’d take off. I’d make a feeble effort to follow him, and Dad would whoop and cheer and high-five me as I got to the blessed end.”