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.
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.
That was the question I felt compelled to address. Maybe answering that would help me figure out what to say. I was sitting with Jai in a doctor’s waiting room at Johns Hopkins, awaiting yet another pathology report, and I was bouncing my thoughts off her.
“Cancer doesn’t make me unique,” I said. There was no arguing that. More than 37,000 Americans a year are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer alone.
I thought hard about how I defined myself: as a teacher, a computer scientist, a husband, a father, a son, a brother, a mentor to my students. Those were all roles I valued. But did any of those roles really set me apart?
Though I’ve always had a healthy sense of self, I knew this lecture needed more than just bravado. I asked myself: “What do I, alone, truly have to offer?”
And then, there in that waiting room, I suddenly knew exactly what it was. It came to me in a flash: Whatever my accomplishments, all of the things I loved in life, were rooted in the dreams and goals I had as a child… and in the ways I had managed to fulfill almost all of them. My uniqueness, I realized, came in the specifics of all the dreams – from incredibly meaningful to decidedly quirky -- that defined my 46 years of life. Sitting there, I know that despite the cancer, I truly believed I was a lucky man because I had lived out these dreams. And I had lived out my dreams, in great measure, because of things I was taught by all sorts of extraordinary people along the way. If I was able to tell my story with the passion I felt, I thought, my lecture might help others find a path to fulfilling their own dreams.
I had my laptop with me in that waiting room, and fueled by this epiphany, I quickly tapped out an email to the lecture organizers. I told them I finally had a title for them. “My apologies for the delay,” I wrote. “Let’s call it: ‘Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.’”