Living well in the best and worst of times


With the passage of time,

and the deadlines that life imposes,

surrendering [often becomes] the right thing to do.

— Randy Pausch

Randy Pausch is a professor of Computer Science, Human Computer Interaction, and Design at Carnegie Melon University. From 1988 to 1997, he taught at the University of Virginia. He is an award-winning teacher and researcher, has worked with Adobe, Google, Electronic Arts and Walt Disney Imagineering, and pioneered the Alice Project. He lives in Virginia with his wife, Jai (pronounced “Jay”) and their three children, ages 6, 4 and 2.

This week his new book, co-authored with Jeffrey Zaslow, stormed onto The New York Times’ Hardcover Advice list in the #1 slot. It is based on a lecture he delivered to students and colleagues that he called, “Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams.” It was a “Last Lecture” — a common talk delivered by professors who are asked to share what wisdom they would impart onto the world if given one last opportunity.

“Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams” made its way onto the Internet and has been viewed an estimated 6 million times. It is a summary of much of what Randy has come to believe. It is about living. But it’s so much more. That’s because at 47, Randy Pausch has been blessed with intellect, success, endurance, athleticism, great humor, simple honesty, creativity, drive and the courage to address an imposing deadline: his own death.

Randy has pancreatic cancer. At the time of diagnoses, he felt some optimism. Perhaps he would be one of the 4 percent who live five additional years. Last summer, he learned that the most recent treatment had not worked and his doctors gave him only a few short months to live.

At that moment, Randy Pausch surrendered to the events of his life (he calls it “the cards he was dealt”) and got to the business of really living well and preparing for his demise with skill and timing. He and Jai have made choices that are smart and logical. For one, they moved near her family so they will be close enough to receive their offers of support when Randy is gone. For another, they have found a trustworthy therapist who helps them think through the many issues they face without the luxury of time.

The “Last Lecture” is Randy’s gift to his three children, most of all. He is aware that they are so young they will forget him and feel abandoned unless he leaves enough memories and evidence to help them live into adulthood without him.

But the book also is a gift to each one of us, for his simple explanations enliven the notion that a glorious life can experienced and the best of this world can be shared even when faced with utter heartbreak and devastation. It’s a book filled with suggestions for living faithfully and honestly and it is appropriate for the healthy and well as those we know and love who are facing their own imminent demise.

My own dad died two weeks after learning he had advanced pancreatic cancer. Randy called it a “hideous” disease in March when he gathered enough strength to testify before Congress. Days before he had been hospitalized as his doctors fought back heart and kidney failure — a direct result of Randy’s aggressive chemotherapy to borrow a little more time.

The road will be extremely bumpy. He does not expect to be alive by year’s end. He’s untouchably saddened knowing he will leave his children and the love of his life and they will be forced to learn how to live on their own. Yet, he has chosen not only to share his gifts with his family, but share his ideas and stories to help us live better and stronger as well.

Here is a sampling. Randy has made it a point to speak to people who lost parents when they were very young. He wants to know what got them through the tough times. He is especially sensitive to the reality that his children are so young, their memories will fade or not be present at all unless he leaves a record of their relationship behind. These conversations have revealed three important lessons:

First, kids find it comforting to know how much their parents loved them. The more they know, the more they continue to feel loved.

Second, kids long for reasons to feel pride in their parents. They want to think well of their parents.

Third, they find it reassuring to know that their parents died with great memories of their children. These three truths have motivated Randy to step away from his professorship to focus on his family, make video tapes, write letters, take trips with his family, give his last lecture and help write his book.

The “Last Lecture” is filled with such beautiful wisdom we will take another look next week. In the meantime, meet Randy by visiting his Web site at http://download.srv.cs.cmu.edu/~pausch/.

And give this family the gift of your prayers. God is listening and working.

Joan Bay Klope is a freelance writer and speaker who makes her home on Whidbey Island. Her award-winning column has run for 12 years in Western Washington newspapers. E-mail comments and speaking requests to faithfulliving@hotmail.com.

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