“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. 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.”
No writer has succeeded in capturing the medical and human drama of illness as honestly and as eloquently as Oliver Sacks.
During the last few months of his life, he wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death.
“It is the fate of every human being,” Sacks writes, “to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”
Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.
“Oliver Sacks was like no other clinician, or writer. He was drawn to the homes of the sick, the institutions of the most frail and disabled, the company of the unusual and the ‘abnormal.’ He wanted to see humanity in its many variants and to do so in his own, almost anachronistic way—face to face, over time, away from our burgeoning apparatus of computers and algorithms. And, through his writing, he showed us what he saw.”
—Atul Gawande, author of Being Mortal
sorry to be as agonizingly shy at eighty as I was at twenty; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done. I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means. Some of my patients in their nineties or hundreds say nunc dimittis—“I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.” For some of them, this means going to heaven—it is always heaven rather than hell,
emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,” a souvenir of my eighty-first birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated eighty-second birthday earlier this month. Here too is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive—hence the lead casket. AT THE
will give me a few more good months. But before beginning this, I wanted to have a little fun: a trip to North Carolina to see the wonderful lemur research center at Duke University. Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, fifty million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature. NEXT TO THE CIRCLE of lead on my
I said, “Yes, of course!” When I hung up, I realized that I had, within a few seconds, reversed a decision of almost sixty years. It was purely a family visit. I celebrated Marjorie’s hundredth birthday with her and extended family. I saw two other cousins dear to me in my London days, innumerable second and removed cousins, and, of course, Robert John. I felt embraced by my family in a way I had not known since childhood. I had felt a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover,
world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me. In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer—and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in The New York Times. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own. And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts,