Early this year I learned that Oliver Sacks had terminal cancer (Times, 1/19/15). On Sunday (8/30/15) Sacks died. He was 82 and had lived a remarkably varied life throughout those many years.
At once the news saddened me. In On the Move, his recently published memoir, he describes his early life in England during the War when he was sent away to a cruel private school in the country, his studies at Oxford, where he obtained his medical degree, his mother (surgeon) and father (general practitioner) and his Jewish Orthodox upbringing, his brothers, one of whom was schizophrenic and then his migration to this country where he wrote most of his memorable articles and books.
Sacks used to swim a mile every, broke weight lifting records on Santa Monica beach and for a period experimented with drugs, including LSD and amphetamines, which he became addicted to for a while. He used to drive his motorcycle for miles every day, sometimes all day to Las Vegas, Death Valley, the Grand Canyon and back again at night.
There is a direct union with oneself with a motorcycle, for it is so geared to one’s proprioception, one’s movements and postures, that it responds almost like part of one’s own body. Bike and rider become a single indivisible entity…
Sacks was a deeply empathetic clinician who emphasized the importance of case studies. He argued this was essential to understanding individual lives, finding it useful in treating and explaining the disorders he sought to explain--migraines, Tourette’s syndrome, color blindness, autism, sleeping sickness and Parkinson’s.
Sacks devoted his life and writing to narrative medicine on these problems, relevant to both lay readers and medical professionals. In On the Move he wrote, “All sorts of generalizations are made possible by dealing with populations, but one needs the concrete, the particular, the personal too.”
Sacks learned much from his literary friendships with Auden, Thom Gunn and Jonathan Miller and in several respects his essays and journal articles are stories that read like fictional explorations. He attributes his great desire to write directly to his parents:
My mother was a natural storyteller. She would tell medical stories to her colleagues, her students, her patients, her friends. And she had told us—my three brothers and me—medical stories from our earliest days, stories sometimes grim and terrifying but always evocative of the personal qualities, the special value and valor, of the patient. My father, too, was a grand medical storyteller, and my parents’ sense of wonder at the vagaries of life, their combination of a clinical and a narrative cast of mind, was transmitted with great force to all of us.
When he learned he had terminal cancer he said he wanted to live in the months remaining to him “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.” There is little doubt he was able to do that, writing every day, continuing to publish articles, and books visiting his friends, and loved ones.
The act of writing, when it goes well, give me a pleasure, a joy, unlike any other. It takes me to another place—irrespective of my subject—where I am totally absorbed and oblivious to distracting thoughts, worries, preoccupations or indeed the passage of time.
In a review of On the Move in the New York Review of Books (5/21/15), Jerome Groopman concluded “Oliver Sacks inspired my efforts as a physician-writer, as he has for so many others. I am, in a sense, one of his students. Now, in settings like my seminar, his work inspires the next generation to think and create. I will add On the Move to our reading list. His writing, like the light from a distant star, will continue to illuminate the lives of his readers, long after its source is extinguished.”
I was struck by Sacks predominant feelings when he learned that he had terminal cancer. It was “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 written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”
I must remember that sentiment for in every respect I share them--gratitude for long life, a life of learning and advantage for as long as I can remember.