A Walk Down Memory Lane

On September 18, 2015, Carnegie Mellon University posted (on Facebook) that 8 years ago, Randy Pausch delivered his famous Last Lecture.

My memory does not reliably record dates. I have a little rhyme to help me remember the birthdates of our sons; I definitely don’t remember any dates connected with any of my cancer news.

But my initial diagnosis is forever linked to Randy’s talk.

That September, our four-year-old had just started pre-K at a new school. We were about to move into a new home. And, on a Monday or Tuesday sometime during that month, I had a colonoscopy. The doctor found something that looked like cancer but we would have to wait for pathology to confirm. He assured me that they got a clear margin, though it was thin. “Clear margin” was encouraging. I had had brushes with cancer in the past, but we always caught it early (funny moles, DCIS), so I wasn’t particularly anxious as we waited for the results.

On Thursday of that week, my friend Julie called to tell me that there was an article in the Wall Street Journal about a talk given by Randy Pausch. She recalled that Randy and I knew each other from our days at CMU. We were no longer in contact, though I did hear through the grapevine about his diagnosis of pancreatic cancer.

I read the WSJ article, mentally noting that it was written by Jeff Zaslow, one of my favorite WSJ reporters (who coincidentally also graduated from Carnegie Mellon). The next day, Friday, in the very late afternoon, I decided to watch Randy’s hour-long lecture online. I figured that I would watch for 15 minutes and if I wasn’t drawn in, I would stop.

Of course, I was drawn in. I watched and watched and watched. I recognized so many aspects of the Randy I knew 20 years before – the way he laughed, how he moved his mouth when he made a joke, his style of jokes. I admired how he had grown into an incredible lecturer and how his values, still the same, became even stronger and more clear.

When I finished watching, I sat back in my chair and took a deep breath. Still sitting there a few moments later, basking in the after-effects of the lecture, our home phone rang.

It was the doctor calling to confirm that I had colorectal cancer.

“Thank you,” was my first response. He thought I didn’t understand him, so he repeated himself.

“I understand,” I assured him. “Thank you for calling to tell me, especially on a Friday night.”

“I’ve never had someone thank me for a cancer diagnosis. Are you okay?”

I tried to explain that I just watched this lecture but I didn’t say much about that before I started feeling silly, so I switched to, “I’m just glad you caught it.”

We talked a bit more – he recommended surgery because the margin was thin but we could discuss particulars next week – and then we hung up.

Shortly after that, the phone rang again. It was my primary care doctor.

“Dr. C told me that he talked with you. He is worried that you are in shock, because you kept thanking him. I wanted to check in.”

“I’m fine. I just watched this lecture….” I again started to explain and then I trailed off. It was Friday night and quite generous of these doctors to spend that time with me. I didn’t need to ramble on about something irrelevant to them.

“I’m fine. I’ll be okay. Thank you for calling.”

(She wrapped up by giving me her cell number and telling me that she was available all weekend if I wanted to talk. I totally love my PCP.)

Not only was Randy’s talk fabulous, but also, I happened to watch it at the perfect time for me. The way he handled his diagnosis and his life both sobered and inspired me. His Last Lecture created a mindset and space that provided a buffer where I could receive the news of my own diagnosis, which didn’t feel nearly as dire. In fact, I felt like I was in a state of grace.

Carnegie Mellon’s Facebook post reminded me that it has been eight years since this all occurred. I am grateful for and awed by the gift of that time.

At the many points when this path felt impossible, I would often think of Julie’s prompting, Randy’s talk and the phone call that immediately followed. These serendipitous events marked the beginning of feeling like I was being cared for and carried. They helped me to trust that the support I needed would come. Sometimes from surprising and unexpected places, but it would come. When I remember the connection between the events of that week in September, I am reminded that I can trust that.

I know that many of us have been handed enormous burdens. I hope that you can feel tangible ways in which you are being cared for and carried, that serendipitous events make your burden more bearable, and that you feel the love all around and through you.

Blessings and light,

Climbing the mountain – one gratitude, miracle, connection at a time

“You never know what’s around the corner. It could be everything. Or it could be nothing. You keep putting one foot in front of the other, and then one day you look back and you’ve climbed a mountain.”

-Tom Hiddleston

The other week, Tom connected me with a woman I will call Jae, a mother with young children whose cancer has recently recurred, and she was told that it is inoperable.

She and I live on opposite coasts but were able to have a phone conversation, where we covered the tip of the iceberg of things we have in common. When we discussed anxiety, I remembered an assignment I received from an energy healer:

When you get up in the morning, take one full minute and list OUT LOUD the things for which you are grateful. You can list anything from a close relationship to the sunshine or the ability to breathe. When you are ready, do it for two minutes, and continue increasing until you get to five minutes. Do it even longer if you like!

One minute. Ha! I thought that I could easily go for five minutes, right out of the gate. Once I started, though, one minute suddenly felt like an eternity, and I felt a bit like a crazy person saying all these gratitudes OUT LOUD while my husband (not exactly into “cheery early mornings”) did his best to tolerate my latest exercise.

However, I persevered and it really made a difference for me, so I shared the advice with her.

Shortly after our conversation, I received this video, out of the blue, from a friend:


Essentially, the little girl in the video lists a long list of things she loves in a very upbeat fashion. I enjoyed the video but quickly realized – this link was cosmically meant for Jae!

I am grateful that I got to connect with Jae and maybe even be of help. I am grateful that my friend sent that link along to me, at exactly the right time for it to mean something to someone who could use it at that very moment.

I am grateful for my connection with you, and I am grateful for the ways in which we are all so interconnected, even when we don’t try to be.

Your actions make a difference in the lives of those you touch, then they ripple through and touch even more lives.

Each action, no matter how small, helps us all to put one foot in front of the other and climb our mountain. Thank you for your positive impact.

With love and joyful gratitude,

High School Reunion

Reveling in the glow of my high school reunion last Saturday night, I could share that I was happily surprised to see two of my very best friends from that time, who I hadn’t seen in at least 30 years. Our hearts connected and I could have basked in the glow of their company all night.

I could share that I got to enjoy my visits with many of the girls who, in high school, were way cooler, way prettier, way more fun than I was. They still are, but we didn’t have that artificial barrier anymore.

I could share that, after these past few years of Facebook interactions, I got to hug one old friend who is like a cousin to me.

I could share that I loved having conversations with my more studious friends, and how very smart and loving they still are.

I could share that I reconnected with some guys who I met when I was 11 and who I grew up with. They are even more warm and compassionate than they were then, if that is possible.

I could share that I truly enjoyed my conversations with some of the guys I met through my high school boyfriend, and that one of those conversations was on a topic I never would have guessed we would discuss, and I appreciate his encouragement of my thoughts and my writing.

I could share that, at one point, I happened to stand next to someone who I assumed was leading the perfect life when he shared that his wife died of cancer while their children were still young. It was like God planted him there for me. I could have talked with him for hours and so appreciate his openness, caring and willingness to connect.

We all knew each other through eyeglasses, braces and acne, through fashion style changes, through activities like sports, music, drinking and drugs. Through those years when we tried so many things that helped each of us learn for ourselves who we are at our core.

But the biggest thing I want to share is that after 35 years, we came together and met each other where we are, today. For this reunion night, our facades disappeared. There was no “in group” or artificial segmentations between the jocks and the heads, between those who were academic and those who were not, between those who were physically beautiful and those who had interesting and diverse features, between the cool kids and nerds.

Instead, I feel like I met the very best in my classmates, those who I knew growing up and who knew me possibly better than I knew myself. They carried absolutely no judgment. Connecting with each one was like a comfortable, familiar meeting of our hearts, grounding me in who I am. Because of this stable grounding and their supportive connections, I have strong roots and trunk, and I can feel the sunshine and reach as far and high as I would like. I love them, as we are all part of each other, and I’m grateful to those who put together this party so that we could do all this in person.

If you have the opportunity to connect with people from your past, and are able to do so with love and without judgement, I suspect it will be food for your soul. In the meantime, I hope you are able to connect with the hearts of those around you today.

Love and beauty,

Climbing aboard the party train

Our nine-year-old wanted a birthday party. Normally a reasonable request (though, one would think he wouldn’t have to request it), but to me, a commitment to serve dinner to my family can feel like pressure. A party????

Again, though, he is nine, so I told him that I could do a small party, maybe 2-3 friends. It wasn’t his vision – he wanted a big blowout that included all his classmates plus some other friends – but he happily shifted gears and thought hard about who to invite. If he could have only 2-3 friends, who would they be?

We came up with a theme, venue and activities, and I ordered coordinated little toys, erasers, candy, etc. for the goody bags. I figured that was all I needed to do in advance, and entered my chemo week.

When I emerged from chemo to take care of the final details, I discovered that the themed goody bag stuff would only arrive AFTER the party. We weren’t sure how to get pizza delivered to the venue, and we had to somehow decorate the place before the party. Oh and buy decorations. The thoughts alone were overwhelming.

I first did what I do when overwhelmed: I made lists. I listed what needed to be done to pull the party together, what we needed to buy, what we needed to bring to the venue and when.

My next go-to when I am feeling overwhelmed: Turn to friends to help me maintain perspective. Facebook friends generously shared suggestions for where I could shop for all this stuff in person and made it feel manageable. One even offered to do it for me. (Thank you, all!!!)

And finally, I act. Although I normally rest after chemo, we all trekked to the closest recommended party store, where I sat and directed while the boys toured the store looking for the items on my list.

They veered from the mission at times,

Masks in Party City

but we did end up with a treasure trove of items with which we could decorate the room and fill the goody bags.

Then, I was spent. I did nothing but rest for the next 24 hours.

Undaunted, our nine-year-old assembled the goody bags for his friends, thoughtfully choosing matching colors of candy and little toys so the bags would look good, and he carefully placed the finished products in a safe place.

The next day, he went with his father to decorate the venue. They hung a Happy Birthday banner on the wall and laid a tablecloth and confetti on the table. On the way home, they picked up the cake, which he selected. Back at home, he found birthday candles in the drawer, counted out nine, and placed them aside.

While I watched him do all this, I felt horrible that I could not throw a simple birthday party for him. Not only that, while he was counting the hours until his party with great excitement, I was counting the hours with dread. Would I have the energy? How would I do it? I can’t even go out to dinner. How would I last through a multi-hour party, with children?

Tonight, when I put our son to bed, he was giddy with excitement for his big day. It was that little kid kind of excitement: pure, bubbly, trusting that it will all be great. And I finally noticed: I was focused on my expectations – that I could throw a party that he wanted, that doing all the work would be my gift to him. He didn’t mind that the party wasn’t a big shindig. He didn’t mind doing the work. His friends were coming to celebrate his birthday, everything was ready, and he felt special. He would have his very favorite, carefully chosen people around him, and it would be wonderful.

I’m climbing aboard his party train, and grateful that I can do what he needs of me, which is to be present.

Party on, with love,