Randy says a major reason he was able to live out his childhood dream is because of his amazing parents. Randy’s mom is a strict, tough English teacher, and Randy says her high expectations were part of his good fortune. Randy’s dad, now deceased, was a medic in World War II, founded a nonprofit to teach immigrants’ kids English, and ran an auto insurance lender in Baltimore that mostly insured people with minimal resources. Randy says he grew up comfortably middle-class, but his parents spent little to nothing. “We didn’t buy much. But we thought about everything.” That’s because Randy’s dad was an infectiously curious person, leading Randy to believe, growing up, that there are two types of families: Those who need a dictionary to get through dinner, and those who don’t. His family is the former.
Rather than seeing his frugal, middle-class upbringing as a hindrance (compared to his mostly-privileged Ivy League colleagues), Randy views his parents’ give-first spend-second attitude as an asset, as it led him to think more deeply about the world, become resourceful, be less entitled, and focus less on surface-level issues. Randy also sees his mother’s high expectations not as an obstacle, but as an opportunity to learn to work hard and set his sights higher than he could have imagined on his own.
Randy notes that his dad was an amazing storyteller, and he believes that stories should be told for reasons—for their morals or lessons. Tammy, Randy’s sister, says that when she watched Randy’s Last Lecture, she heard their dad’s voice. Randy says he quotes his father almost every day—Randy’s dad gave him advice throughout his whole life, saying things like, “Just because you’re in the driver’s seat… doesn’t mean you have to run people over.” Randy’s mom, on the other hand, sees it as her mission to keep Randy’s cockiness in check. When she describes what Randy was like as a child to other people, she tells them he was “alert, but not terribly precocious.” And now as an adult, after earning his PhD, Randy’s mom introduces him to people by saying that “He’s a doctor, but not the kind who helps people.”
From his father, Randy learns that storytelling has the power to impart lessons. Randy uses this power all throughout his book and last lecture, which shows that Randy’s father’s lesson is part of a feedback loop. The wisdom passes from Randy’s dad, to Randy, to the readers, and hopefully from the readers onto other people in their lives. Randy’s mom, in her descriptions of Randy, epitomizes the idea of being brutally honest when giving feedback to anyone, especially those you love—her honesty helps Randy become less cocky.
Randy’s parents believed strongly in community service. For example, they underwrote a student dorm in Thailand to help girls stay in school and avoid prostitution. Randy considers his father to be the most giving, “Christian” man he’s ever known, because he was “focused on the grandest ideals and saw equality as the greatest of goals.” Though his high hopes for society are often dashed, Randy’s dad always remained a “raging optimist.” When Randy’s dad was diagnosed with leukemia at 83, he arranged to donate his body to science, and gave money to the dorm program in Thailand to sustain it for at least six more years.
Randy takes every step possible to ease his family’s path into the future and remain optimistic when he is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer; perhaps this attitude is modeled on Randy’s dad who, in the face of a cancer diagnosis, doesn’t take on a ‘woe is me’ attitude. Randy’s dad faces reality as positively and realistically as he can, and he takes the necessary steps to leave the world and his family in as good a position as he possibly can.
Randy says that many people who watched his last lecture were captivated by a photo of him, in his pajamas, staring up toward the sky, his head separated from his body by a wooden slat. This wood slat is a part of Randy’s bunk bed, which was hand-built by his father, and this photo reminds Randy that he won the parent lottery. Randy notes that, although his children will have a wonderful mother in Jai to guide them, he knows they won’t have a father—he’s accepted it, but it still hurts. Randy says he’d like to believe that his father would’ve approved of how Randy is going about his final few months, and that “kids—more than anything else—need to know their parents love them. Their parents don’t have to be alive for that to happen.”
Rather than simply giving in to the sadness of being inevitably separated from his kids, Randy focuses on what he can do for them, which is to show them, in as many ways as possible, that he loved them deeply. This positive attitude and proactive behavior was always how Randy lived his life, and that didn’t change while he was dying.