ELDER MUSIC: The Devil Made Me Do It
Dear Diary: Some Notes on Ageing

Oliver Sacks' Essential Essay on Dying

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.

OntheMoveCover150In 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"


You're right - the essay is beautiful, poignant, honest. Thank you for recommending it. And I see how it relates to your experiences. We all need to come to terms with end of life this way. Peace.

Agree, great essay, great perspective, great man.

It's too bad Mr. Sacks won't be able to report to us after his demise. I'm sure that his perspective on the afterlife would be fascinating.
As for me, I don't know what would be worse. Knowing you are going to die soon, or suddenly dying. Both my parents died suddenly, after a brief illness. They never had time to say goodbye or impart any wisdom to me and my brother. We both felt short-changed in that department.

I lost a friend to liver cancer last week. Doctor said she had 5 - 11 months to live (go figure on the odd numbers). She lived one month. I have been thinking about how she could "go out" without more anger, expressed fear, etc. "Detachment" never occurred to me but the word gives me comfort to know that she might not have had to struggle in the ways I would have thought.

Ronni, you speak for many( I dare to say for all of us) in your praise for Oliver Sacks. He IS always a joy to read and he will be sorely missed. That is alegacy worth striving for.

Thanks for the picture of the dustcover of his upcoming autobiography, Ronni. It reveals a side of him I've never seen before, but then I imagine there is much more to this multi-faceted man than most people would imagine.

I read the essay in the Times with tears of both sadness and joy.

My perspective on the OS article is that he describes the "work" of this time in life perfectly. We all get to define our purpose but it seems to be a bonus to get the time to engage it and possibly touch others lives in a loving way...

Ronni, I have to thank you again and again for what you provide here with this community. A year ago I started to research aging drying to find open, honest discussions on these topics - TGB was one of the few out there, slowly - ever so slowly, more are popping up. It seems that us 'old people' are tired of youngsters telling us how to grow old and die based on their 'meta studies' and pop culture memes. Oliver Sacks is one of those voices - open, honest conversations will swell the tide and possibly change the direction for providing support for elders.

Oops! Aging/dying...

I'm sure many of us have watched people die from cancer. Even if you have great zest for life, you can eventually get sick enough, and feel miserable enough, that death starts looking like a relief. Or at least not scary anymore.

What needs to change is that we should have assurances, if we are terminal, that our health care system will let us check out in the manner we choose. If our choice means battling it out till our last breath, with every possible procedure to extend one more hour of life, so be it. However, if our choice means we want a morphine-induced painless dream state, or even euthanasia, then we should have the right to that as well.

Brilliant essay. Thanks, Ronni, for bringing it to our attention.

I read the essay earlier and it deserves all the praise that has been heaped on it.

I discovered that detachment is not exclusive to the terminal patient.

I am not terminal (at least I have not been diagnosed as such), yet I am experiencing a feeling of detachment. I no longer read the many political articles that used to consume me and I am no longer spend time thinking about future problems.

That is not to say that I am no longer interested in them, but I am less involved.

My focus now is becoming more on family and the beauty I find in simple pleasures. I am ready to let others fight the good fight.

Heartbreakingly beautiful.

I also read the essay earlier and have it saved for reading again when needed.

Not that I have contracted any disease or am near death but I find as I get older that I am beginning to share this sentiment of Sack’s

“I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming. This is not indifference but detachment.”

What this says for me is that for years I have fought what I feel is the good fight and though I continue still, I do so with a growing detachment from it because it takes so much from me that it tends to consume more vital parts of life.

I've followed Dr Sack's work in my profession as a psychiatric nurse for years. Now I admire his approach to his dying, treasure his words describing his attitude and thank you for bringing it all to your post. Grazié.

Verify your Comment

Previewing your Comment

This is only a preview. Your comment has not yet been posted.

Your comment could not be posted. Error type:
Your comment has been posted. Post another comment

The letters and numbers you entered did not match the image. Please try again.

As a final step before posting your comment, enter the letters and numbers you see in the image below. This prevents automated programs from posting comments.

Having trouble reading this image? View an alternate.


Post a comment

Your Information

(Name and email address are required. Email address will not be displayed with the comment.)