The Last Lecture

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I love to listen to the radio while I drive, but I prefer talk shows over music. I spent some time listening to conservative programs, but when I reached the point of becoming so angry that I considered shooting the bird to nobody in particular I realized that it was time to try something different. Of late I’ve been enjoying NPR where I’ve learned so many interesting and quirky things. Last week I heard about a professor at Sam Houston State University who’s offering a last lecture series. It’s based on the idea of providing one’s own elegy before death. The prof got the notion from an Oprah program that featured a guest who was dying of cancer who had given a powerful final lecture to his students. The incident was recorded and went viral after it was uploaded on YouTube. Now a number of teachers at Sam Houston are volunteering to give their own versions of final lessons for their students.

The format is interesting in that the speaker tells a brief history of his/her life and then gives advice on how to live a full and meaningful existence. Those who have agreed to lay bare their souls have found that they leave the experience feeling quite fulfilled. Their public self reflections are as helpful to them as to their listeners. They serve as reminders that we should cherish each breath that we take, and do our best to make each moment as meaningful as possible. We assume that we have miles to go before we travel down the rainbow highway, but we never really know when our time here on earth will end. It’s actually a challenging but freeing experience to look back on what we have accomplished and assess how well we have done.

The program made me wonder what I might say if I were given an opportunity to present a last lecture of sorts. What might I tell an audience that would make a difference or inspire? Where would I begin?

I’ve already written a memoir, but it focuses mostly on my mother and the trials that so defined her life. I suppose that like her my own story has a before and after all having to do with my father’s death. Literally everything in my world changed in an instant that was tragic but also hardly the end of my world. I learned that life takes twists and turns that seem impossible to overcome at the time, but in reality help us to grow and become stronger. In my own case it took a very long while for me to regain my footing. I was afraid and unsure of myself even with the amazing strength of mother to guide me. Ironically it was when I became responsible for her care after her first mental breakdown that I realized just how much courage I was capable of mustering. I was literally forced by circumstances to either sink or swim, and I chose to dog paddle my way through situations that once might have terrified me. There is strange twist in the fact that I learned how to be brave at a time when I was most afraid.

I always wanted to be a highly successful and accomplished woman, but I somehow believed that doing so meant that I needed to be rich and famous. I felt a bit ashamed that my biography was seemingly so ordinary. After all who really views a mom and a teacher as someone outstanding? I knew that I was never going to be honored as an exceptional graduate or have my name in a headline or on a marquee, but I have to admit that I made great choices that I would repeat again if I had the opportunity to live my life all over again. It felt good to quietly make a difference in my own children and my many students. There was great meaning in what I did from day to day and that has always been important to me.

If I were to share the advice that I deem to be the most important it would be to follow one’s heart. Life should be joyful, and if we are not feeling a burst of happiness and satisfaction in whatever we do, then maybe we are in the wrong place. Of course not every single day will ever be perfect, but there should at the very least be meaning and a sense of importance in whatever we choose to do. My advice for young people has been to find their passions and follow them. If they do so they will rarely go astray.

I have always attempted to be a woman of integrity. I have few secrets and most of those are things that I do not share in order to protect other people. Otherwise my life is an open book. I admit to my imperfections and do my best to improve them. I try not to judge or be self righteous. I honor and love people and accept and cherish differences. Doing so is the spice of life that makes each day more interesting. I try to be humble, but I am indeed proud of my family and my friends and the work I have done. I believe It gets one nowhere to brood over what is lacking rather than counting the blessings that are always there. Mostly I know that the key to a life well lived is found in the simple act of love. It is in giving of ourselves to the people around us that we become our very best. Being able to glance in the mirror and like what we see is a tremendous gift, but it takes hard work to achieve.

At the end of the day our possessions and our wealth mean so little. We can’t take anything with us, but we can leave behind legacies that continue to inspire long after we are gone. We never know what people will say about us as they gather to mourn but we always hope they will know and remember how much we truly cared. It is in sharing adventures and travels and learning and quiet moments that we are most likely to find our way into hearts. The best among us are always ready to listen or comfort or just laugh.

I recently answered a reference call for one of my former students. I haven’t seen him for quite some time, but when asked what kind of personality he has the words that came to my mind were sensitive and compassionate. I have forgotten his flaws and only recall his sweetness. That’s how we tend to be when someone has shown us kindness, and he always did. I suspect that every one of us would very much like to be remembered like that. I know I would.

A high school friend recently asked me what I would write about him if he were to die. He was curious to know what kind of man I perceive him to be. I was happy to be able to tell him what a positive impact he has had on this world. He possesses high principles and constantly strives to live up to the standards that he has developed as a guideline for living. He has done an excellent job in that regard so I have little doubt that if he were to deliver a last lecture it would be quite compelling just as I know he would want it to be.

It is said that each of us is forgotten within two generations, left to become dust blowing in the wind. It truly matters not whether or not we are remembered in the future, but it is important to be well regarded in the present. If we are careful to consider the needs of those that we encounter even if it only means smiling to make them feel happy, then we are on the right track. It doesn’t take much to find that little bit of heaven right here on earth so long as we simply celebrate ourselves and the people that we encounter along our way. 

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