n February, 2015, neurologist Oliver Sacks – arguably the world’s best-known brain doctor and the greatest physician writer in English, wrote an article in The New York Times called My Own Life, announcing that “my luck has run out.”
Dr. Sacks, 81 years old, still wildly productive, clear-headed, feeling robust, and swimming a mile a day, had just found out he had multiple metastases, from an ocular cancer that had been treated nine years before. One-third of his liver was filled with cancer.
No sooner had he shared his ill fortune than did he begin to write of his gratitude for the years he had been granted since his original diagnosis, and his overall feeling of gratitude for having lived as “a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet … ”
Hardly a word more was said about the cancer. For now, face to face with dying, he was not quite done with living. He would restrict himself to essentials, which meant saying goodbye to dear friends and family, and continuing to write as he always had, hoping to die “in harness.”
A group of short, extraordinarily affecting essays followed, his farewell to the world, leaving many readers in tears. Dr. Sacks’s specialty had been documenting how an individual, trapped in an extreme mental state that altered perception and even identity, retained his humanity. How, one wondered, might Dr. Sacks bear up when facing his own ultimate transformation?
There were surprises, and some revelations, too, in these lyrical meditations, which have been gathered together in a very short book collection – called, fittingly, Gratitude, which appeared on Nov. 24, not long after the release of his memoir, On The Move.
The essays in Gratitude had a spare beauty about them – unusual for a writer who so loved the rich tangent. They were unique among his other, more lush, scientific writings. They had the feel of wisdom literature. Wisdom sifts; a wise man, mindful that he has little time to say what he must, gets to the point.
And the tone was unusual. They were both stoical and poignant. These are two qualities that rarely go together; we tend to think of stoicism as a kind of armour worn against our emotions, and poignancy as the breaking through, into our stream of consciousness, of emotions, even our most tender and delicate feelings. The poignancy and stoicism of the Gratitude essays was heightened by Dr. Sacks’s reiteration that he was an atheist. He was, as far as he knew, facing a total erasure of his identity.
Instead of “battling” his illness, the common metaphor of such accounts, he accepted that he was going to die. And his attitude, in Gratitude, is ultimately to see dying – odd as it is to say it – as an opportunity, of sorts. His burgeoning awareness that his life is ending is affording him a vision of it he had not had before. “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as sort of a landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts.”
The final essay concluded: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life – achieving a sense of peace within oneself. 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.” [Read More]