Oliver Sacks Left Wisdom Worth Re-Reading
At just 64 pages, the last book from Dr. Oliver Sacks, famed neurologist and author, feels like one of those slim “gift” books you find in the greeting-card section that are filled with maxims and platitudes.
It’s anything but.
Gratitude, a collection of the (very) good doctor’s final four essays written in the two years leading to his 2015 death from cancer, forms the sort of deeply wise legacy that most humans would like to leave. However, not all humans have the gifts of context, character, and creativity Sacks did. Those who don’t (present company very much included) should buy several copies of Gratitude so that they don’t have to part with their own.
A brief recap, in keeping with the book’s spirit: Oliver Sacks was born in 1933 to Orthodox parents, both doctors, in London’s historically Jewish Cricklewood. He was the youngest of four sons, groomed to become a physician and happy enough until at 19 he told his father he liked boys.
“Don’t tell Ma,” he begged his father. “She won’t be able to take it.” But marriage trumped a son’s confidence, and the next day his mother “shrieked at me: You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” He adds, heartbreakingly: “The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.”
Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
Oliver Sacks left England for Los Angeles, a journey chronicled with great tenderness and brio in his 2015 memoir On the Move. Although he writes that he spent some time aimless, by the 1970s he had embarked on the medical career that would eventually inform his superb medical writing.
Awakenings, the story of how his experimentation in a Bronx mental hospital led to great hope, and great disappointment, was made into a major motion picture starring Robin Williams as Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was a collection of neurological case studies that forever changed the way readers and laypeople view brain disorders.
Sacks’ true gift may have been prose, rather than science, although his strengths in both arenas were so formidable such a distinction matters mostly because you are missing out on something rare and true if you don’t read that prose. This goes quadruple for the Gratitude essay quartet.
“Mercury,” about vitality in late life, was written in 2013 just before the author’s eightieth birthday; eighteen months later, he would learn that a rare form of melanoma in his eye (diagnosed in 2005) had spread to his liver and could not be cured. He wrote “My Own Life,” an appreciation, almost immediately after this news and it became a much-loved and discussed article in The New York Times. While he felt able to continue activity in the first half of 2015, he finished the delightful “My Periodic Table,” a short paean to the elements and physical science, his first love.
However, by August 2015, Oliver Sacks was ill and close to the end. In their foreword, his friends Kate Edgar and Bill Hayes write that “Sabbath,” his final piece of writing, “was particularly important to him, and he went over every word of the essay time and again, distilling it to its essence.”
Each of these four essays bears reading and re-reading, for different reasons. “Mercury” will convince readers of all ages and stages that exuberance has no season: “Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.”
“My Own Life” has Sacks meditating on “how to live” the days that remain: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
But there’s a change, too—he chooses to let go of worries about things like war, global warming, and more: “This is not indifference, but detachment…these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”
By the time he writes “My Periodic Table,” Dr. Sacks has recognized that what he will not see—“a thousand…breakthroughs in the physical and biological sciences”—is comfortingly balanced by what he has in front of him. “Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”
Perhaps this is why “Sabbath,” the last essay, has so much resonance. Yes, Sacks distills the concept of a day wholly devoted to rest, but he also acknowledges that a Sabbath can mean taking a rest from long-carried baggage. In 2014, a much-older cousin, Marjorie, asks if he will attend her hundredth birthday celebration in Israel, a place he has never visited: “I suspected I would be out of place in a deeply religious society.”
But Sacks and “my lover, Billy” decide to attend, and during that visit, he writes, “I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood.” His final sentence is this:
“I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Dr. Oliver Sacks laid down his burdens on August 30, 2015. All of us who read these last works of his mighty, compassionate pen will experience gratitude for his life well lived.
More Highlights From
On being 80
One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.”
On enjoying old age
I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. 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.
On seeing the whole landscape
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.