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,