Last Lecture Series, 2003 - Ann's Explanation:
Every year for the last 12 years at UVA, undergraduate students invite three professors to give their “Last Lecture”, and this year I was honored to be among the three. Here was my assignment: I had 20 minutes to say whatever I wanted to say to the University community if I knew it was the last lecture I could ever give. Quite a challenging premise, yes?
Also, picture the setting – the University’s largest auditorium, in semi-darkness, with almost 650 students and others there.
The Last Lecture of Ann Baile Hamric
Delivered at “The Last Lecture Series”
University of Virginia, April 14, 2003
It is an honor and a daunting challenge to be asked to give this lecture. I rarely write out my lectures, but I’ve made an exception in this case because I don’t have any PowerPoint slides to hide behind -- and, I expect that you all KNOW how hard it is for professors to only talk for 20 minutes! [Very clever of you guys to limit our time!] Before I begin, there are a few things you need to know about me – I’m a nurse, a breast cancer survivor of 16 years next month (and yes, I am counting!), and I am a Christian. These facts will all be important in different ways as I go through this talk.
The year was 1992. Paul Tsongas, the Senator from Massachusetts, was having some success in the early primaries in challenging Bill Clinton and others to become the Democratic Party’s Presidential nominee. Tsongas was in remission from the cancer that would ultimately take his life, and to all appearances, he was healthy, and many people were very excited by his candidacy. But then he withdrew from the race. In the statement announcing his withdrawal, Tsongas first noted that the issues important to him had been incorporated into the party’s agenda. And then he said this most interesting thing: “The obligation of my survival has been met.”
Not all of the news reports picked up this sentence, but when I read it, this statement, “The obligation of my survival has been met”, hit me like a ton of bricks. In 1992, I was enrolled in a rigorous PhD program 2 states away from my home, traveling weekly on AMTRAK (you can just imagine how much fun THAT was!), trying to be a student again over the outright objection or bewilderment of practically everyone who knew me. [Here’s a typical response: “Let me get this straight – you want to quit your job and go to school for four years so you can make LESS money??!!”] My children thought that I was flat out nuts (some of you may be able to relate to that: CHOOSE to go to school?!). Even I wasn’t sure why I felt compelled to do this “go back to school” thing —until I read Paul Tsongas’ quote. Then I knew in my bones, as a fellow cancer survivor, that I was trying to meet an obligation of my survival.
Probably most of you know that for many persons who are diagnosed with cancer, one of the first questions is, “Why me?” I was 39 years old (yes and it was 16 years ago so the more enterprising among you can do the math and figure out how old I am). I was a very young 39 with no family history of breast cancer, so there was and would be no answer to this question of why me. But what you may not know is that over the course of weeks and months and years, for those of us who recover from cancer, a more profound and haunting question emerges: I call it the “Why not me?” question. Why am I still alive? Why am I surviving? I had terrible odds – even after surgery and aggressive chemotherapy, I had a 70% chance of a recurrence in 3 years (and in those days recurrences were rarely curable). My oncologist was so convinced I would have a recurrence that he talked me into having my bone marrow stored for a transplant, as that was the promising new treatment for recurring breast cancer (which we now know does not work, so I’m grateful I did not have to endure that). I participated in a breast cancer support group with many remarkable women, who did the same things I did to get cured of cancer. We got the same medical care, we tried to follow all the advice we could get our hands on regarding diet, exercise, etc, and we all prayed fervently to the same God. But too many of those women died – I did not. We have all known wonderful people whose lives were ended through fluke accidents or random violence. So Paul Tsongas’ words have resonated in my head for over 10 years now – how am I to understand, much less meet, the obligation of my survival?
Tonight, I’m going to share some reflections on this topic – not my usual subject matter, I assure you. Some of my students say that I push and goad them to think – they don’t always mean this in a positive way. But I choose to view it as a great compliment, and it is my hope tonight that you will be stimulated, pushed, goaded, WHATEVER, to think about and begin reflecting on the obligation of YOUR survival as well. For we are all persons of extraordinary privilege to be alive in this place and in this time. And one is never more acutely aware of this privilege as when they have walked through the valley of the shadow of death.
Now, lest you fear a sermon (which you probably are getting rather worried about after that last statement!), or one of those schmaltzy, over-the-top Internet stories (you know the kind – if you don’t immediately send it to 20 of your closest friends all your teeth will fall out), I need to give a disclaimer, some “truth telling” if you will. I definitely don’t have this “obligation of my survival” all figured out. Gloria Steinem has said,
“We teach what we need to learn.”
And that is what I’m doing tonight – I’m teaching what I need to learn. Indeed, I will spend my life trying to understand and meet this obligation – I see only glimpses, and this is what I hope to share – so this lecture is really best characterized as one step above random musings, forced upon me by this most challenging assignment. Most of the time I’m as content as the next person to squander my time watching old Star Trek reruns and not think about such profound things.