On the Op-Ed page of The New York Times last week, renowned neurologist Oliver Sacks announced his impending death from terminal cancer.
True to his nature – or what I know of it from his 12 books and dozens of stories and reports in The New York Review of Books – his essay is eloquent, thoughtful, honest, beautiful, inspiring and for us who will be left behind, deeply sad.
”The cancer occupies a third of my liver,” he explains, “and though its advance may be slowed, this particular sort of cancer cannot be halted.
“It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
Of course he does. The man I have come to respect and admire and learn from over decades of reading could do no less.
Given what I know of TimeGoesBy readers – well, those of you who comment regularly – I suspect that a large number of you have already read this piece and it is so complete in itself, there is nothing worthy I can add.
But at a blog dedicated to what it is really like to get old, neither can I let this go unmentioned, so a few words of personal response.
In one section, Dr. Sacks reminds me of what I hope for about my own demise in a description that is amazingly close to what I experienced some years ago when an accident convinced me that my death was imminent:
”Over the last few days,” writes Sacks, “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.”
Although it involves a death sentence delivered, I assume, with an approximate time table, I passionately wish to be granted that time.
My mother was. For the same diagnosis as the good doctor, she was given three or four months during which I cared for her, and what Sacks expects to do with his remaining time is similar to what I watched in my mother:
“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at NewsHour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
“This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”
Exactly - “detached.” I felt that in my own accident and watched it happen both with my mother and with other loved ones as they were dying. In this remarkably brief essay, Dr. Sacks covers a lot of important ground; he is still, as he has all these years, teaching us.
In May this year, his autobiography, titled On the Move, will be published. Here is the dust jacket which is remarked upon thusly at oliversacks.com blog where there is a larger image: “Yes, this is how Oliver Sacks rolled in 1961 (in Greenwich Village on his BMW).”
It pleases me to know this little thing about his younger self.
If you haven't read the essay, please do – it is a keeper to be read and re-read and read again. I also recommend a previous Op-Ed from Sacks in 2013, titled The Joy of Old Age (No Kidding.) It is equally important and Sacks is always a joy to read.
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Dan Gogerty: Orthorexia, Healthy Food and “Piecing Around"