A lot of professors give talks titled “The Last Lecture.” Maybe you’ve seen one.
It has become a common exercise on college campuses. Professors are asked to consider their demise and to ruminate on what matters most to them. And while they speak, audiences can’t help but mull the same question: What wisdom would we impart to the world if we knew it was our last chance? If we had to vanish tomorrow, what would we want as our legacy?
For years, Carnegie Mellon had a “Last Lecture Series.” But by the time organizers got around to asking me to do it, they’d renamed their series “Journeys,” asking selected professors “to offer reflections on their personal and professional journeys.” There wasn’t a lot of life in that description, but I agreed to go with it. I was given the September slot.
At the time, I already had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, but I was optimistic. Maybe I’d be among the lucky ones who’d survive.
While I went through treatment, those running the lecture series kept sending me emails. “What will you be talking about?” they asked. “Please provide an abstract.” There’s a formality in academia that can’t be ignored, even if a man is busy with other things, like trying not to die. By mid-August, I was told that a poster for the lecture had to be printed, so I’d have to decide on a topic.
That very week, however, I got the news: My most recent treatment hadn’t worked; I had just months to live.
I knew I could cancel the lecture. Everyone would understand. Suddenly, there were so many other things to be done. I had to deal with my own grief, and the sadness of those who loved me. I had to throw myself into getting my family’s affairs in order. And yet, despite everything, I couldn’t shake the idea of giving the talk. I was energized by the idea of delivering a last lecture that really was a last lecture. What could I say? How would it be received? Could I even get through it?
“They’ll let me back out,” I told my wife, Jai, “but I really want to do it.”
“Call me selfish,” Jai told me. “But I want all of you. Any time you’ll spend working on this lecture is wasted time, because it’s time away from the kids and from me.”
I understood where she was coming from. From the time I’d gotten sick, I had made a pledge to myself to defer to Jai and honor her wishes. I saw it as my mission to do all I could to lessen the burdens in her life brought on by my illness. That’s why I spent many of my waking hours making arrangements for my family’s future without me. Still, I couldn’t let go of my urge to give this last lecture.
Throughout my academic career, I’d given some pretty good talks. But being considered the best speaker in a computer-science department is like being known as the tallest of the Seven Dwarfs. And right then, I had the feeling that I had more in me, that if I gave it my all, I might be able to offer people something special. “Wisdom” is a strong word, but maybe that was it.
Jai still wasn’t happy about it. We eventually took the issue to Michele Reiss, the psychotherapist we’d begun seeing a few months earlier. She specializes in helping families when one member is confronting a terminal illness.
“I know Randy,” Jai told Dr. Reiss. “He’s a workaholic. I know just what he’ll be like when he starts putting the lecture together. It’ll be all-consuming.” The lecture, she argued, would be an unnecessary diversion from the overwhelming issues we were grappling with, in our lives.