March 16, 2016 8:00:27 AM
When he died last year at age 82, Oliver Sacks, the neurologist, researcher, memoirist, and author of popular tales about people with mis-wired brains, had known his death was coming, and like he did about anything in which he took an interest, he wrote about it. The essay, "My Own Life," appeared in The New York Times. It is republished in a gem of a book which includes three other essays about getting old and and leaving (but loving) life, Gratitude (Knopf). This tiny book shows just why people loved Oliver Sacks, and why he got such an outpouring of friendship and goodwill when he announced his imminent death from cancer. It is a humane look at his own life, and death, told with good humor, acceptance, and that charming gratitude that had such a strong hold on him. If you know his writings, this will bring them to a thoughtful and enlightened conclusion; if you do not, the little book is a not just a farewell but will do for a grand introduction. For all of us, our days are numbered, but those of us who are getting along in years might realize it a little more often than the youngsters we see around us; but even those youngsters will profit from this happy glance backwards and glance forwards.
The first essay, "Mercury," was written when Sacks was just about to turn eighty, and had no idea that cancer was to take him. The element mercury has number eighty on the periodic chart, and Sacks has felt a kinship to the elements (read his Uncle Tungsten) ever since at age eleven he could say, "I am sodium." He can hardly believe he has hit eighty: "I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over." He is open about regrets: he has no language but English, and he hasn't traveled as he ought, and at eighty he is as agonizingly shy as he was at twenty. He is not sustained by belief in any "postmortem existence" other than that his friends and readers will remember him. He enjoys the long view of his life and relationships that being at so far a remove allows. He reflects, "Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life."
Alas, in "My Own Life," he reflects, "My luck has run out." A rare eye tumor had metastasized to his liver, and he knew he had but months to live. He tells us how he means to live them, cutting out nonessentials like the nightly news and increasing concentration on his friends, his writing, and his work. He remembers that David Hume was in the same predicament, and handled it with grace, but Hume described himself as a man of "mild disposition." Sacks might have been a brainy, bookish neurologist, but he was of "vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions." This mild-mannered and shy fellow, you will have to read in his autobiography On the Move, had been a leather-wearing motorcyclist, a forest firefighter, a record-holding weightlifter, and a nearly-suicidal addict to amphetamines. Fortunately for us, and for the patients he treated and wrote about, he had clinical vehemence, too. He tells us, at this late hour in his life, that his predominant feeling is gratitude: "Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure." I teared up when I read those words when he first published this essay, and having read it several times more, it still makes me cry, with its grace and rightness.
He is back to the elements in "My Periodic Table," reflecting with sadness that he will not see the upcoming predicted revolution for nuclear physics. He has surrounded himself as he did when he was a boy with "metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity." He has in a box element 81, thallium, sent to him by "element-friends in England: the box says 'Happy Thallium Birthday" for his 81st. He had just celebrated his lead birthday, 82, and realizes that he won't get up to 83, bismuth, but he likes having it in his collection. He knows he will never see 84, polonium, "nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table - my periodic table - I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and how long ago my soon-to-end life began."
In "Sabbath," Sacks reflects on his religious upbringing in a fairly orthodox Jewish community in London, and of the rituals beginning on Friday when "my mother doffed her surgical identity and attire and devoted herself to making gefilte fish and other delicacies for Shabbos." He gradually drifted away from orthodoxy, but there was no rupture until he was eighteen, when his father asked about his sexual feelings and compelled him to admit that he liked boys. Sacks begged that his mother not be told, but told she was, and came shrieking at him, "You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born." No one mentioned the matter again, "but her harsh words made me hate religion's capacity for bigotry and cruelty." The words still rang in his memory when he visited family in Israel in 2014. At age 77, to his great surprise, he had fallen in love. To his great relief, his extended family warmly received his lover Billy. In his final words here, he reflects that it is the Sabbath of his life, time "when one can feel that one's work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest."
And rest in peace, Doctor Sacks. I am filled with gratitude.