Since this is my last post for 2015, I thought I should focus on a graceful subject: the teaching of Oliver Sacks.
Dr. Sacks, renowned neurologist, died of melanoma at age 82 on August 30, 2015. I can’t say that I am profoundly familiar with his books; however, the few articles I have read are enough for me to appreciate his vibrant energy and graceful spirit. And even though he was a total stranger to me, reading his musings on his impending death, “My Own Life”, and the New York Times’ obituary, I felt such a lump in my throat.
Many have written eloquently about Sack’s contributions; my writing skills are woefully inadequate to make songs about his very being. I just want to share some of Mr. Sacks’ accomplishments and words that are especially moving to me.
Maria Popova (www.brainspickings.com) described Oliver Sacks as “a Copernicus of the mind and a Dante of medicine who turned the case study into a poetic form.” Dr. Sacks’ “Awakenings,” detailed accounts of patients suffering catatonia, was turned into a movie of the same title with Robin Williams reprising the role of the doctor. Dr. Sacks’ books are popular for good reasons. Through his preternatural story-telling, Dr. Sacks demystified illnesses and gave dignity to the patients who lived lives, rather than just filled the patient charts or comprised yet another statistical graph.
Dr. Sacks was a prolific writer, not just about neurological case histories of people but also about music, chemistry, travel, deafness, swimming, language perceptions… Of course, he didn’t just care about his patients and their lives but also others who sought his consultation, either in person or by mail. According to New York Time’s obituary, Mr. Sacks wrote about 10,000 letters a year. “I invariably reply to people under 10, over 90 or in prison,” said Dr. Sacks.
So many readers feel identified with Oliver Sacks, probably because of his generous spirit, as well as his vast interests, ranging from weightlifting, motorcycling, music, chemistry, poetry, swimming, stargazing, anything and anywhere the mind and the body took him. One is bound to find some common interests with him. He even turned his fading hearing into a study for himself, and with his ever-present sense of humor, he could amuse himself (and his readers) with adventures of “Mishearings.” And Sacks’ life was an embodiment of contradictions, as stated in his Time’s obituary, “[He was]: candid and guarded, gregarious and solitary, clinical and compassionate, scientific and poetic, British and almost American. ‘In 1961, I declared my intention to become a United States citizen, which may have been a genuine intention, but I never got round to it,’ he told The Guardian in 2005.”
In Dr. Sack’s February (2015) Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, he informed the public that his cancer was terminal, without any trace of bitterness, forlorn wishing, or regrets. The article was full of gratitude:
“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.
“…But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well.”
The words that touched me the most are:
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude…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.”
I don’t get into New Year resolutions — and I am not about to — however, I will start reading Oliver Sack’s books, at least three next year. I am half way through his autobiography, “On the Move.”
In closing, let me once again borrow from Maria Popova, this time the beautiful closing of her tribute:
“What a privilege for this world to have been graced with this extraordinary human animal and his fully embodied mind. The only thing left to say is what Dr. Sacks himself wrote to his beloved aunt Lennie, who shaped his life, as she lay dying: ‘Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living – for being you.’”
Let’s welcome 2016 with more grace.
Merry Christmas, and have a Peaceful & Joyful Holiday. Till next year,
Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.
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