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Of Dreams and Grace

August 13, 2008

Last Friday evening, as Chiara was setting the table for dinner and Graysen was offering up his typical resistance to turning off the Gamecube, I felt a sudden urge to check a blog I’d been frequenting for months. Randy Pausch, the Carnegie Mellon professor with a terminal diagnosis of pancreatic cancer, had captured my imagination earlier in the year with a lecture entitled  “Really Achieving your Childhood Dreams.”
After watching the lecture that became a YouTube sensation, I dug around online and found his update page. It was spare, to the point, the writing imbued with a unique voice — that of someone facing death but still fully energized by the spark of life.
This man, I began to discover, was genuinely, intrinsically, joyous.
I bookmarked his blog, and checked in frequently over the following months, reading about the ups and downs in his battle against the virulent disease, while at the same time contemplating the idea of really achieving my childhood dreams.
What were those anyway? I seem to recall one in which I had a large, shingled house in some anonymous tiny town where apparently nobody minded my 45+ dogs, 100+ horses and the many (cute) baby animals I fostered.
Then there was the one in which I rode a horse everywhere.
And the one in which I became the first African-American girl to have long hair. Never mind that I’m sort of not African-American and that plenty of them would have beaten me to the punch anyway.
Baffling, I know.
And now that I’m a grown-up I officially have no desire to do any of those and I mostly like my hair. Though it would completely rock to have a horse.
Perhaps, I thought, I’m missing the point. I kept contemplating, and going about my days.
Then, there was a long period of time in early July when Pausch’s blog yielded no news. The last blog post was dated June 26, and though the entry hinted that things weren’t going as well as they had been, there was still hope for some improvement. Continued delay of the inevitable.
Last Thursday, I checked in again and found a new entry. Pausch was very sick and had begun hospice care.
The following evening, as the kids milled around the manicotti I’d unceremoniously plunked down on a hot pad in the middle of the table … as Graysen surreptitiously stole Chiara’s flowered fork and replaced it with his own … as Chiara’s face crumpled at the injustice dealt, once again, by her little brother … I clicked through to Pausch’s blog and, finding nothing new since the day before, searched on his name.
When Google showed me a news results link, I knew. Pausch had passed away.
As I read this news Graysen was climbing up on the dinner table to meticulously poke holes in the aluminum foil that covered the manicotti. Mira was trying, in vain, to figure out some way to sit next to me despite the fact that Chiara had set the table, and thus had the privilege of determining where everyone would sit. Chiara was still bemoaning the theft of her fork, which made Graysen cry because Chiara was disappointed in him for five-fingering it. Then, Chiara stubbed her little toe into a bloody mess and Graysen decided that he wanted a “different dinner.”
And I took it all in while simultaneously comforting Chiara and gently telling Graysen that I wasn’t making him a different dinner. Sorry.
Meanwhile, I could only imagine what Pausch’s family was doing in that moment. He left behind a wife and three very young kids — two of whom would likely have no direct memory of their father.
I am not in those shoes and so I cannot know what the world looks like following such a loss. I can only imagine. My heart goes out to them.
But though death claimed Pausch too soon, it is fortunate that he left behind the spark of his wisdom in a small book entitled “The Last Lecture.”
“I was trying to put myself in a bottle that would one day wash up on the beach for my children,” he wrote in the book.
As it turned out, his wise words and life-affirming attitude also washed up on the beach for millions of other people, including me.
Thus inspired, I had a new perspective in that small moment of dinner chaos. First, I hope I can die — and, more importantly, live — with as much grace as Randy Pausch. Second, I am reminded that really achieving my childhood dreams is now deeply entwined with supporting, and encouraging, the dreams of my children. Even if they’re as baffling as mine were.
But I’m still not making two different dinners.

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