Oliver Sacks


“I am now face to face with dying,
But I am not finished with living.”

“Nighttime walk on a clear night,” notes Jan Morris in one of her diary entries written when she was 93, “Is one of the largest experiences one can have.” I imagine Oliver Sacks walking thus as he imagined the essays in Gratitude.

Part memoir, part collected reflections at the end of a life fully lived, in Gratitude, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks (July 9, 1933 – August 30, 2015) distills the crucial things that stand apart as he nears the end of his life.

Last night I dreamed about mercury—huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be eighty myself. Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned about atomic numbers.

our unknowable real mortality
Using items of her own and others found in markets and shops, Paulette Tavormina’s work, especially her Vanitas series, suggest a painstaking amount of work. Envisioning the space, cultivating a sense of life and death simultaneously – neither overwhelming the other – and then carefully collecting and crafting the objects Courtesy of the Robert Mann Gallery.

A man who claimed he is “equally drawn to the scientific and the romantic” in humanity is quick to see both in himself. In his own inimical, casual way, Sacks maneuvers us through “what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life.” Concepts include injected breaks and pause, reflections on loyalty and commitment, and cherishing the precious things we keep nearby.1

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman. […] Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life but also no death.

The relaxing habit of rock collecting. Photograph by Ellen Vrana.

Sacks ruminates on friends—including Francis Crick and W. H. Auden—and writes about being loyal to a necessary Sabbath. The Sabbath was a practice that rose from Sack’s Orthodox Jewish childhood and came to mean life’s most necessary rest.

In his reclamation of words, Consolations, poet David Whyte defines gratitude as arising from paying attention, from “being awake in the presence of everything that lives within and without us.”

Sacks’s Gratitude, similarly, is a warm extension of the most important parts of a man who, despite a terminal cancer prognosis, finds joy and peace in remembering a life fully lived and a need to “work until the end.”2

At nearly eighty, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive—’I’m glad I’m not dead!’ sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect.

The pure joy that sparks from Sacks’s writing, like struck flint, will pierce and warm your heart. Like Maya Angelou, who welcomed a long march of tomorrows in her early eighties, Sacks’s demonstrates our ability to live, whatever the age, whatever the prognosis.

Sacks re-emphasises his message:

My father, who lived to ninety-four, often said that the eighties had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life but others’ too.

Many writers and thinkers have gifted us written views from the purple-shadowed lands, including British novelist Penelope Lively’s thoughtful reflections on memory and Leonard Cohen’s collection of mournful, hopeful poems in his Book of Longing.

Self-portrait by Leonard Cohen. Featured in Cohen's "Book of Longing" in the Examined Life Library.
Illustration by Leonard Cohen.

Wislawa Szymborska’s last collection of poetry published before her death is a handsome companion to any thoughts on the reckoning of life. In Here, the Polish poet and Nobel laureate plays with time, memory, and meaning.

For all these individuals, Sacks especially, life abounds.

Illustration of Oliver Sacks.