Certainly, the thought of leaving Jai that day was painful to me. And yet, I couldn’t let go of the idea of the lecture. I had come to see it as the last moment of my career, as a way to say goodbye to my “work family.” I also found myself fantasizing about giving a last lecture that would be the oratorical equivalent of a retiring baseball slugger driving one last ball into the upper deck. I had always liked the final scene in “The Natural,” when the aging, bleeding ballplayer Roy Hobbs miraculously hits that towering home run.
Dr. Reiss listened to Jai and to me. In Jai, she said, she saw a strong, loving woman who had intended to spend decades building a full life with a husband, raising children to adulthood. Now our lives together had to be squeezed into a few months. In me, Dr. Reiss saw a man not yet ready to fully retreat to his home life, and certainly not yet ready to climb into his deathbed. “This lecture will be the last time many people I care about will see me in the flesh,” I told her flatly. “I have a chance here to really think about what matters most to me, to cement how people will remember me, and to do whatever good I can on the way out.”
More than once, Dr. Reiss had watched Jai and me sit together on her office couch, holding tightly to each other, both of us in tears. She told us she could see the great respect between us, and she was often viscerally moved by our commitment to getting our final time together right. But she said it wasn’t her role to weigh in on whether or not I gave the lecture. “You’ll have to decide that on your own,” she said, and encouraged us to really listen to each other, so we could make the right decision for both of us.
There was something else at work here, too. I had started to view the talk as a vehicle for me to ride into the future I would never see.
I reminded Jai of the kids’ ages: 5, 2 and 1. “Look,” I said. “At five, I suppose that Dylan will grow up to have a few memories of me. But how much will he really remember? What do you and I even remember from when we were five? Will Dylan remember how I played with him, or what he and I laughed about? It will be hazy at best.
“And how about Logan and Chloe? They may have no memories at all. Nothing. Especially Chloe. And I can tell you this: When the kids are maybe twelve or thirteen, they’re going to go through this phase where they absolutely, achingly need to know: ‘Who was my dad? What was he like?’ This lecture could help give them an answer to that.” I told Jai I’d make sure Carnegie Mellon would record the lecture. “I’ll get you a DVD. When the kids are older, you can show it to them. It’ll help them understand who I was and what I cared about.”
Jai heard me out, then asked the obvious question. “If you have things you want to say to the kids, or advice you want to give them, why not just put a video camera on a tripod and tape it here in the living room?”
Maybe she had me there. Or maybe not. Like that lion in the jungle, my natural habitat was still on a college campus, in front of students. “One thing I’ve learned,” I told Jai, “is that when parents tell children things, it doesn’t hurt to get some external validation. If I can get an audience to laugh and clap at the right time, maybe that would add gravitas to what I’m telling the kids.”
Jai smiled at me, her dying showman, and finally relented. She knew I’d been yearning to find ways to leave a legacy for the kids. Okay. Perhaps this lecture could be an avenue for that.
And so, with Jai’s green light, I had a challenge before me. How could I turn this academic talk into something that would resonate with our kids a decade or more up the road?
I knew for sure that I didn’t want the lecture to focus on my cancer. My medical saga was what it was, and I’d already been over it and over it. I had little interest in giving a discourse on, say, my insights into how I coped with the disease, or how it gave me new perspectives. Many people might expect the talk to be about dying. But it had to be about living.