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It was 3:30 in the afternoon, and I was gazing through my kitchen window at the Pacific. I’d recently decided to retire from the university because of a chronic sleep disorder that resulted in memory problems, and I was reluctantly accepting the loss of an important part of my identity. My thirty-year-old title of “professor” would be swapped for “professor emeritus” and, as compensation for losing the status that went with the role, I’d receive a library card and a free lifetime email address. But I’d also finally have an opportunity to resume my woodworking and travel to exotic countries. Maybe even a trip to Tibet.

My thoughts were interrupted by a phone call.

“You have cancer,” the physician said to me. “And it’s aggressive. If you don’t have surgery, it will kill you. even with surgery, the escaped cancer cells may still be fatal.”

I don’t remember what I said to him, but eleven years later I still feel nauseous thinking of his three words. He couldn’t see me for four days, so in the interim I reread my favorite Buddhist authors. I was hoping to learn from them how to tell my wife and adult children I might be dying and to find some comfort. Yet I found little consolation in anything I read and— despite the warnings not to—I grasped at my conditioned existence. There was a gap between what many of our greatest teachers wrote I should be feeling and what  I was feeling.

Stan Goldberg is the author of
Lessons for the Living: Stories of Forgiveness, Gratitude, and Courage at the End of Life and Leaning Into Sharp Points: Practical Guidance and Nurturing Support for Caregivers.

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