Goodbye Dr. Sacks


Today Dr, Oliver Sacks died.

I hope you know who he is, although it means you will share my sorrow to some degree. If not, then I can say with certainty that you have a wonderful treat in store for you: he was a magnificent storyteller and chronicler of the mysterious, glorious landscape we call the human mind.

I first discovered him in college in the late 80s and his work, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, inspired one of the few psychology papers I wrote that got an A. (I was an A student in almost everything, but not my major. Fate, I suppose.) Sacks wrote with clarity and compassion about the strange and bizarre effects of brain damage in a way that made his patients and their conditions understandable. (In the eponymous story, for example, prosopagnosia is a condition wherein one loses the ability to recognize faces while still retaining the ability to  recognize other objects accurately. So one can recognize a couch, or an umbrella stand, or even that it is a person, but will not recognize WHO the person is, no matter how presumably familiar.)

When Dr. Sacks’ shared the news of his illness in an op-ed piece in the New York Times in February of this year I wept, as much for the irony of it being cancer (and a recurrence even) as it was for his courage and honesty.

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. . .

Over the last few days, 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.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well). . .

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.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

For a man as public as he seemed to be, much of his life was private. But he was candidly homosexual, although not political. He found love late in life after 35 years of celibacy, and is survived by his partner of six years.

In the decades since college I have followed his career through his writings, not all of which I loved, but many of which have found a home on my shelves. He was an explorer and a witness to the vagaries of the human condition as produced by its central control, qualities I felt echoed within myself although not expressed. Through him I journeyed into areas I wanted to know more about, through him I learned and came to understand how gorgeously complex and exquisitely creative the mind can become.

He died well, in his own home, writing nearly until the end (just two weeks ago he wrote an op-ed in the Times about the importance of keeping the Sabbath, not for religion, but for rest), clear of mind and surrounded by his loved ones.

An example to the end.

Goodbye Dr. Sacks, the light is a bit dimmer for your passing.

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