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,
Marie

Preparing for the storm

I love snowstorms…as long as I get to stay in a warm house with fresh food and maybe even a fire in the fireplace. I especially love the change in routine and the change in the air.

The changes begin a few days before and include stockpiling food. I needed to as well: Not only did we need snowstorm supplies like milk for hot chocolate and snacks for cozy movie times, I had just finished a chemo week so our supply of fresh food was low to non-existent. There was no way to avoid the packed parking lot and crowded shopping conditions.

I mentally prepared to circle the parking lot but, on my first pass, I was thrilled to score rock star parking close to the door.

Entering the store, I found – no carts. Hmmm. Well, this time I actually remembered to bring my reusable bags, so I decided that, given my close parking space, I could shop by filling my bags with what I could carry, paying for those items, dropping those bags off in my nearby car, and then returning to the store to repeat the process until I got everything I needed.

I had one bag filled and was working on bag #2 when I came across an empty cart with no apparent owner! I happily snagged that and slowly navigated the crowded aisles to finish the rest of my shopping.

My last stop was the deli counter. They didn’t have an number system, so I made a mental note of everyone who arrived ahead of me so that I didn’t miss my turn. Then, while I waited, I eyed the prepared foods. A nearby man was placing his order for slices of cooked beef.

“Not too rare,” he cheerily told the person behind the counter.

Normally, the conversation would end there, but he continued.

“My grandmother cooked it well-done, so I like it that way.” Clearly, he was not from around here. People generally aren’t chatty and even less likely to share personal information with strangers. It reminded me of Pittsburgh.

“It’s my midwestern roots,” he added.

He’s got to be from Pittsburgh, I thought. It is the only place I know where people talk with everyone about anything. But then, there could be other places…

The Pittsburgher in me couldn’t resist, so in my most friendly Pittsburgh-tone-of-voice I asked, “Where in the Midwest are you from?”

Smiling and slightly apologetic, he responded, “Well, not really the Midwest.”

I got excited – I knew it was coming.

“I’m from Pittsburgh.”

I almost jumped on him. “Nuh uh! I’m from Pittsburgh too!”

So as I waited for my turn and then placed my order, we shared stories of growing up in Pittsburgh and laughed about adjusting to New England culture. We remembered knowing and talking with everyone in our neighborhood. We thought nothing of dropping unannounced into friends’ homes and them into ours. Eventually, we hugged and went our separate ways.

Later, as I stood in the slow, long line to check out, I heard a voice behind me say, “I’m going to get in line behind my new friend!”

Happy to see him, I noticed that his cart held far fewer items than mine. So I pointed that out and said, “Do you want to go ahead of me?”

He brightened even more. “Really? That is such a Pittsburgh thing to do! If you are serious, I would love it, because I have a concert to go to and I don’t want to be late.”

“I’m singing in it,” he added.

Again I noticed the “more information than usual” but it was cool to have context. I realized that I wanted to ask a million questions, like “Really?” and “What kind of music do you sing?” and “Where is the concert?” I’m sure he would have been unfazed but my social radar causes me to automatically censor myself so as not to annoy everyone around me.

He moved ahead of me in line and we finished our chat as he finished paying. I was thrilled to meet someone from Pittsburgh and get to connect to my own culture for a bit. Totally made my day. I love snowstorms.

I hope that, if you are facing a storm, you are able to see the resources around you. Even if they aren’t ideal, I hope that they can work for you in a way that enables you to get what you need. I hope that you can find a friendly face along the way and feel amazingly uplifted. And when the storm does arrive, I hope that you are able to settle in a warm and cozy place filled with good food and love.

Blessings always,
Marie