Dr. Oliver Sacks has died.
He was the professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, the author of many books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, and was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books. His memoir, On the Move, came out this year.
I had some personal contact with Sacks in 1990, when he answered a letter I had written to him about nerve damage. The letter he sent in reply was typewritten, with mistakes and misspellings crossed out and corrected in ink pen. Not the most beautiful document from this great man, but I was touched he took the time to respond.
Last February, at age 81, Sacks learned he had terminal cancer. A month before, he was in good health, “But my luck has run out,” he said in his Feb. 19 op-ed in The New York Times titled “My Own Life.” He talked about being face to face with dying and his choices of how to live out the months that remained. “I have to live them in the richest, deepest and most productive way I can.
“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. 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.
“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work, my friends. I shall no longer look at News Hour every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming ... these are no longer my business; they belong to the future ... I feel the future is in good hands.
“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.”
What a gift for us to read these words from a man who knows he has only a few months to live. The impending deadline really accelerates the expression and essence of this man. The grace and dignity with which he feels about his life and his remaining time are truly something to emulate.
His writing has touched me on many levels, and makes me think, of course, about how I would live those last few months. Even if we don’t have a fatal diagnosis, perhaps we should live each day in the “richest, deepest and most productive way (we) can.”
Martha McClellan has been a developmental educator in early childhood for 38 years. She has moved her focus now to the other end of life, and has written the book, The Aging Athlete: What We Do to Stay in the Game. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.