Stan Goldberg | Lessons for the Living
November 6, 2009
Dr. Kent: My next guest on the show is the author of a wonderful book called ‘Lessons for the Living.’ It’s a very beautiful note that we can end the show on today. The author of this book is Stan Goldberg, and the subtitle is, ‘Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude and Courage at the End of Life.’ Welcome to the show, Stan Goldberg.
Stan Goldberg: Thanks, Kent, for having me on.
Dr. Kent: You went through a terrible experience yourself, and that’s how you got into this whole thing.
Stan Goldberg: Yes. I have prostate cancer, and when I contracted that, I really didn’t know what I was going to do with my life. I didn’t know what the prognosis was. Through a series of events, I ended up as a bedside hospice volunteer.
Dr. Kent: Your background is as a professor, and of course you have your PhD in speech pathology, and all sorts of history teaching and presenting and all of that. Now how is this different from all of that?
Stan Goldberg: I think that the biggest difference is that in a world of academia, you tend to be very objective, very empirical, very data oriented, very almost constricted in some way. Being a bedside hospice volunteer, you have to throw all of that out, and it’s a very emotional, present experience. It was a radical transformation that I had to go through in order to be effective as a bedside hospice volunteer.
Dr. Kent: The book itself is obviously dealing with both you and them. How did you learn through these experiences of talking to these people?
Stan Goldberg: When I started to do my volunteer work, I really had no intention of writing this book. I was actually working on a novel. The experiences were so transforming that I thought that I really needed to write these things down. What happened was, I went from someone who pretty much fit the stereotypical view of a university professor to someone who was much more open, not only about what I was experiencing going through cancer, but also what my patients were experiencing. Being in their presence really allowed me to get much more in touch with myself, and pretty much learn how to live regardless of how long that might be.
Dr. Kent: All of us, from early on in life, have real problems thinking about death: of course we do. It’s a terrifying thing. You confronted it by being diagnosed first of all. It’s obviously a different perspective when it happens to you or when you see it happen to someone else. What did you see in seeing through the window, both directions?
Stan Goldberg: I think that there’s really three levels of understanding that I found. The first is what I had been most accustomed to, which was book [indecipherable]: essentially you can read about something and have an intellectual understanding of that. The second thing is you can actually watch it happen, and that would be at the bedside, and you’re seeing people confront their own deaths. The third most intimate, I think probably most genuine form of knowledge, is when you experience the thing yourself. I’ve been able to do all three of those things now.
Dr. Kent: There are such taboos around death. You shouldn’t talk too much about it, and nobody prepares you for those times when your family members are in the hospital, or when you yourself are diagnosed with something. What stories did you come across that made you write this book?
Stan Goldberg: There were many things I learned. If you look at the book, there’s about eight very specific lessons. They all seem to have very simple descriptions, such as letting go, not taking along with you something that no longer is functional. An example of that would be there was a woman that I served whose mother had difficulty accepting the idea that her daughter was dying. Because she couldn’t accept that, the daughter made a conscious decision to keep on living in spite of tremendous pain she was experiencing. Watching that happen, it made me realize that I was doing the same thing on some levels, even though it wasn’t that traumatic. Because of my cancer, I was putting myself in physical risk, because I did a lot of outdoor things alone, that didn’t make sense any longer. So that was one direct application, where watching what my patient was going through was a direct lesson to how I needed to change my own life.
Dr. Kent: So you have prostate cancer, which is something that is terrifying to a lot of men, and yet men rarely get checked for it, honestly. What can you say about the cancer itself?
Stan Goldberg: Get it checked quick, and soon and often. Prostate cancer is one of the slowest growing forms of cancer. If it’s caught early enough, while the cancer is still in the prostate gland, it’s a hundred percent curable almost. But once it’s allowed to get out of that gland, which has been the case with me, then those microscopic cells are going to be there forever. When I said that my diagnosis is indeterminate, what I really meant was that the cells are always there, and it’s a holding action that medication is taking essentially. My thought is that the cancer cells will always be there, they will be hungry, and they’ll be ready and waiting to go, unless something else beats them to the punch.
Dr. Kent: It’s fascinating to me to speak to someone who does have a close perspective on that: all of this healthcare debate is going on right now. Obviously one thing is Americans are thinking a lot more about health over the last several months, but what’s your take on the whole debate happening?
Stan Goldberg: One of the biggest problems that I saw was that you had people who had a vested interest in keeping the healthcare system exactly as it is scaring the most vulnerable people in our society, those that were sick and elderly. It’s taken the hospice movement numbers of years in order to have the whole issue of looking at end of life care as something that was important. I think a lot of the discussion on death panels, on pulling the plug, really put us back many years. I was very disheartened by what was happening.
Dr. Kent: Because it’s a political tactic on an issue that really all of these, even the people that were saying those phrases, advocated planning, which is the strange thing. So there’s this political thing happening for something that we really do need.
Stan Goldberg: I agree with you completely.
Dr. Kent: In terms of this book, what’s the been the feedback? Obviously there’s not many folks out there that are able to put this perspective to death. Of course the book is called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ It’s not about how to die or something like that. What’s been the feedback, because clearly you do offer perspective that is new?
Stan Goldberg: It’s interesting. I think there’s two levels of feedback that I’ve been getting. The first one is a reluctance to read it because people have a natural fear of dying. They look at death as the finality of it, the horror of it, and whatever negative term they can think of for it. But when they actually read the book, the feedback is incredibly gratifying. I think the purpose of the book was to have people understand that the greatest teacher we can have about living really is death. A willingness to look at it openly and see what it can teach us is what I try to give people in the book.
Dr. Kent: What does this book mean to you in terms of what you’ve been able to do with it, and what it means now for you moving forward?
Stan Goldberg: There’s two different forms of satisfaction from this book. The one is in writing it, essentially I felt that I was given information and knowledge that I felt I was required to share. As I said, I had no intention of writing the book, but the message was so clear and so important, I thought I was obligated to share it. Now I’ve done that, and that was one of the purposes. The second is being in the presence of these people has radically transformed my life. For me, it’s more important that the quality of the life that I have not just physically, but also psychologically, than it is the quantity of life that I have left. That I got from my patients.
Dr. Kent: What a beautiful book it is. Give us another peak inside the cover. Tell us another one of the sections in the book.
Stan Goldberg: There was a woman who had spent her life waiting for a person that she had a relationship with to get out of jail, which was a very strange relationship they had. As he had about a few more years left, she contracted brain cancer. She realized that by waiting her entire life for this guy, she had wasted hers. At that point, when he would finally able to be released from prison, her life would long have been over. She came to understand that living in the future is a way of denying the present. That was a lesson that I took very seriously. That’s the lesson that a lot of the patients that I was with came to understand: we don’t know about tomorrow, we don’t know about the future. The past is gone, all we have is today. Live for today because that’s the only time we exist in.
Dr. Kent: Those are beautiful words. What’s the immediate job that you do? Tell us more, because I know from my time with family in the hospital, there’s some incredible workers that work with people. What is the work you do? Do you work at a hospital? Do you go to homes?
Stan Goldberg: I’ve been with four different hospices. Hospice can take place in a dedicated unit, it can take place within a hospital, it can also take place in homes. I’m currently with Pathways Home Healthcare and Hospice, and they almost completely go into people’s homes. So I will go into someone’s home, I will sit with them, I will talk with them. If something needs to be taken care of in the house, I will do that. But it’s usually that I’m there to – the best way to describe it is a midwife to death. I’m there just to listen to them, to be there to witness their pain, to talk to them about dying if they bring up the subject. It’s almost what you would do with a family member or a good friend, and that’s what a hospice volunteer does.
Dr. Kent: That’s also such an incredible opportunity to sit at someone’s bedside, because they recant the tales of their entire life at times, I’m sure.
Stan Goldberg: It’s an honor to be able to sit there and be invited into someone’s life, especially as it’s getting closer to ending. People are more honest with you than they are sometimes with their family members. They’re willing to share with you things that they’ve never told anybody. You walk away from the bedside of these people, a different person, a better person, every time you’re there.
Dr. Kent: On a lighter note, your latest blog entry talks about people who died in the middle ages. I’ve got to say I was chuckling – death is at sometimes sort of funny in a weird way. You talked about when people died, they said goodbye, gave away the furniture, and then they just stopped breathing.
Stan Goldberg: Yes, and that was pretty much how it was. At that point, death was viewed as just a part of living. As a part of living, it was treated no differently than birth. So it was this continual wheel that people accepted and they didn’t have any fear about. Now, it’s a very fearful topic. I don’t know if I mentioned that blog, but there was a story that Thomas Merton told that when his mother, Donna, was dying – this was about 1910 or 1913 – they wouldn’t allow him to come to the hospital, because they thought it would traumatize him, although he loved his mother and she loved him. What she did was to write him a letter that he was able to read after she died. It’s that kind of fear we have of death. I think it ends up doing two evils: one, it makes it difficult for those of us who survive people who have died to really understand what is going on and to learn from them, and the second, it makes it difficult for the person who’s dying. It’s important to say goodbye. It’s important to finish up things. There’s a lot of things that we can do for loved ones as they are dying if we just weren’t so afraid of the topic.
Dr. Kent: You know what’s interesting too, I was just thinking Halloween weekend is approaching, and it used to be that Halloween was a scary night because the souls of friends and family and other folks were just drifting about before All Saints’ Day. It’s kind of kids paint cemeteries, and they dress up as dead people and this and that, but it made me think, it’s all become so commercialized, that the kids aren’t actually thinking about death anymore. They’re just having a good time. I’ve heard that many cultures, even American culture 50 years ago, 100 years ago, it was much more talked about, death. There was always an open casket, and the whole town would come see. What’s the relationship that we have now adays with death?
Stan Goldberg: I think we fear it generally. We think that if we ignore it, it will go away. I think it also allows us to think in terms of the future rather than living for today. I’ll always have time to say I’m sorry. I’ll have time to say goodbye. I’ll have time to hundreds of different things, and I think in some way it insulates us from maybe some of the more difficult things that we currently experience. Like, if I screw up, I tell people now I’m sorry right away. I don’t wait, because I don’t know how much longer I have. I think it’s that insulation that people want. They would prefer to think that there’s always time to do it. If you believe you always have time to do it, then you’re not going to want to deal with death.
Dr. Kent: These lessons for the living, it’s almost that you’re telling people, there are things that we should be thankful for, and things you should apologize for right away. Is there some of that to what your book is about?
Stan Goldberg: That’s the whole book. The nut of the book is that the way that we live is going to be the way we die. If you live in the present, you take care of people. You say you’re sorry when you’ve done something that you shouldn’t have. You tell people how much you love them. If you do all of that now, and don’t think you have time for the future to do that, I’ve found that deaths tend to be much easier.
Dr. Kent: Yes. It’s so fascinating talking with you. What are you working on now? Obviously you’re doing some interviews, and giving this wonderful book out there, but what are you doing now?
Stan Goldberg: There’s another book I’m working on, don’t know the title yet, but it has to do with resurrecting one’s joy. One of the things that I’ve seen is that a lot of times, people will grieve a loss they have, whether it’s a loss for a person, a pet, a job, and many other things, and the question then becomes, how do you regain that joy that you lost? The approach most people take is, well, you look for an exact substitute. If your husband dies, you look for a new husband, if your pet dies, you look for another pet. What I started looking at is those people that I’ve seen who’ve recovered their joy did it not necessarily by looking for an exact duplicate, but rather, looking at the emotion.
Dr. Kent: I don’t know if you ever heard – where did I see this? On television or somewhere, the story of the couple that cloned their dog or their pig or something.
Stan Goldberg: No, I didn’t.
Dr. Kent: It was their beloved – was it a pig? I can’t remember – but their beloved animal, and they cloned it. Of course, the animal that they literally reproduced wasn’t the same animal. Exactly what you were just saying. It’s such an honor to chat with you, Dr. Stan Goldberg. Now your background is in communicative disorders at San Francisco State, and you’ve got political theory background, and philosophy.
Stan Goldberg: As my mother would say, I could never make up my mind.
Dr. Kent: Yes [laughs]. Exactly. Now you’re a writer in a topic that’s very important. I look forward to seeing what you come up with next, and this is truly a beautiful book. Thank you so much for talking to me.
Stan Goldberg: Thank you for having me on Kent.
Dr. Kent: People can check out Stan Goldberg’s newest book, and his blog: great amounts of information on StanGoldbergWriter.com. Of course his book is called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ What incredible stories he’s told us even here, and go check it out. Next week on the show, I’m excited because we’re going to have a whole different lineup of guests. Every week, it’s kind of a different thing. I believe next week, we’ve got an author for most of the show, and then a musician at the end. Every day this week at 3pm, you can tune in and listen to Sound Authors interviews. I hope you’re all able to pick up a great book: Stan Goldberg’s book is a book that you need to buy for everyone in your family who has ever dealt with death or thought about it. It’s called, ‘Lessons for the Living.’ Clarke Buehling – what a fun conversation that was – talking about The SkirtLifters, his music of the last 20 years, his explorations of the last 40 with the banjo, and the origins of urban and country music, and of White and Black music. It’s been a great show today. Everyone have a safe week, and we’ll talk to you live again next Friday. Tune in every day at 3pm to hear some favorites of mine from Sound Authors radio. Have a safe week, and pick up a great book.