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An assignment that was all too real

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By Pat Wellington

In Chapter 1 of The Last Lecture, author Randy Pausch tells us that for years at Carnegie Mellon, where he was a professor, faculty were asked to consider their demise and “to ruminate on what matters most to them.” These became what were called a “Last Lecture Series.”

Pausch was given a 2007 September slot for his own last lecture at a time when he had already been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. But he was optimistic. Perhaps he would be one of the lucky survivors. He was not. 

Given three- to six months to live, 47-year-old Pausch began a monument to his children, Logan, 6, Dylan, 3 and Chloe, 18 months – all too young to remember him – a testament larded with fatherly advice he would not be around to give. A byproduct of this legacy is an inspirational book for all readers. Most of all, it’s a book about living, not dying.

Randy doesn’t care why people read his book, only that they pick up on valuable life lessons he’s learned along the way, gems such as his view that “life’s brick walls are there to show us how badly we really want something,” or “experience is what you get when you didn’t get what you wanted.”

He uses football analogies, when it serves his purpose, like “head fakes,” lessons that people think they are learning when they’re actually learning something else. As an example he points to the football coach who teaches his charges about footwork, tackling, and handling the ball. But they don’t realize they are also learning about teamwork and sportsmanship.

Head fakes are all around us, he says, and we should learn to recognize them.

Pausch wants everyone to live in the moment as he had learned to do, to treasure each waking hour, and not assume that life would go on for a long time.

Though the underlying subject – early death – is sad, there is nothing pathetic about this humble author. In fact, if we feel sorry for anyone it may be for ourselves for failing to find the meaning of life that he has found in a fraction of time.

As he readied himself for the lecture date that conflicted with his wife’s birthday, he wondered if the many slides of his childhood and family might prove too much for him, that he might be flooded with emotion. So he formulated a plan:

“For days I had worried that I’d be unable to get through the final lines of the lecture without choking up. So I had a contingency plan. I placed the last four sentences of the talk on four slides. If in that moment I couldn’t bring myself to say the words, my plan was to click silently through the slides and then simply say, ‘Thank you for coming today.’”

But that didn’t happen. Instead, he clicked to the last slide – his favorite – where he held a smiling Logan on his shoulders and with his right hand encircled Dylan and with his left cradled sweet Chloe.

Pat Wellington is a retired English professor, freelance writer, and faculty member of On Top of the World’s Master the Possibilities, who shares her passion for books with others.