My Own Life
February 19, 2015 4:33 AM   Subscribe

Oliver Sacks, on learning he has terminal cancer.
posted by HuronBob (41 comments total) 67 users marked this as a favorite
 
That was beautiful. Thanks for posting it.
posted by wittgenstein at 4:44 AM on February 19, 2015


I was fine until the penultimate paragraph
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.
And thus the tears flowed.
So it goes.

.
posted by DigDoug at 4:51 AM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


There will be time for dots later. The man still has at least one great adventure, and probably more, left to stuff into the next few months.
posted by localroger at 4:58 AM on February 19, 2015 [27 favorites]


If you haven't read his books, now's as good a time as any to start. I was a latecomer to his writing.

I find myself recommending one of his latest, "Hallucinations," quite a bit, especially when I hear from people who are disturbed about things apparently going bump in the night. Sacks's approach - explaining phenomena and defusing fear ever so gently through a rational approach - is sort of like Mr. Rogers if he'd been a university prof.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 5:04 AM on February 19, 2015 [9 favorites]


Journey joyously, brother.
posted by Autumn Leaf at 5:07 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


It should be crushing news to suddenly receive a terminal diagnosis, but it's quite the opposite for Sacks. Once again, he takes something apparently paradoxical and renders it understandable and human: "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."

One almost looks forward to seeing what he can accomplish with next few months available to him. Almost.
posted by Doktor Zed at 5:11 AM on February 19, 2015 [5 favorites]


Oh no - this makes me very sad.

What a beautiful piece he wrote; thanks for posting.

This is a very compelling podcast from RadioLab where Dr. Oliver Sacks talks about his early career and approach to medical writing - and his looking around for models of how he wanted to write up research: Shorts: Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks . (And a pointer to the 1990 film, Awakenings.)
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 5:12 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Argh.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 5:17 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


"Oh no - this makes me very sad."

Me, too. He's one of my favorite people; I've read several of his books. And I saw him speak twenty years ago and he was delightful.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 5:21 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Saying "farewell" to someone who has effected so many lives positively that it's difficult to find his equal.
posted by cleroy at 5:24 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Ah, fuck. That man is lovely.
posted by allthinky at 5:41 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


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.

Knowing you have a short time like this is such a double-edged opportunity-- imagine saying those goodbyes.
posted by BibiRose at 5:51 AM on February 19, 2015


It's interesting to read this and see how sharply it differs from my own perspective when I was diagnosed with cancer a little less than a year ago and told it could quite possibly be terminal. I think a lot of it comes down to him feeling he's achieved things in life, like he's done enough in this world. When you feel like that, perhaps dying is kind of like going to sleep at the end of a long, busy and satisfying day.

But for me, facing the prospect of dying before I was 45, all I could feel was frustration and despair, like the teacher was calling "pencils down" when I was nowhere close to done with my Scantron. One of the few things Sachs said that really clicked with me and sounded familiar was that he was aware like never before of wasting time, that he wasn't going to spend his evenings watching NewsHour anymore. I remember being really aware that stuff like Buzzfeed and random Youtube videos had gobbled up way too much of my life, that in the time I had left I should only click that hyperlink if it was something that actually mattered.

Knock wood, real hard, but I'm doing OK now. I didn't die, and while my life was forever changed by my cancer, I've definitely done some backsliding and wasted some days lately. But I'm trying to learn from my cancer experience, and if I have anything to pass along from it, it's this:

Don't just consume; create. If you consume, minimize the garbage you take in. Don't ever forget that you are going to die, because you will die, and probably a lot sooner than you think. Think about what really matters to you, what you would regret if you found out you were about to die, and do that shit now. Maybe it all sounds cliche if you've never really looked death in the face, but let me tell you, you have to do shit now. Feeling like you're about to die with a lot of shit undone is maybe the worst feeling you can feel. I've felt a lot of bad feels, and that one's up there.

I hope I live as long as Sachs, and I hope that when my day comes I can approach it with something like his calm and acceptance. If you find out you're terminal, and you are that peaceful about it, you've done something right.
posted by Ursula Hitler at 5:54 AM on February 19, 2015 [149 favorites]


I only hope that if I am ever in such a situation I would be as graceful in my communication with the world.
posted by numberstation at 5:57 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Oh bugger.
posted by fonetik at 6:08 AM on February 19, 2015


What?!?!?!!?!?!!?
posted by Nevin at 6:14 AM on February 19, 2015


He will be missed. And so will his contributions to science and the writing community.

As I mature into my thirties I've grown to accept that many of my cultural, social, & political icons are fading. They will die in my life-time. This is a fact of life. These figures who I looked up to as a child are nearing the end of their time. I cannot change this, but fuck....its still harsh.
posted by Fizz at 6:27 AM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


Oliver Sachs - his presence, his works and his writing, has been a goddamn treasure for the human race.

A profound, kind and wise man.

While, as he says, everyone is unique..........more like him please.
posted by lalochezia at 6:34 AM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


I wish him well in his coming months, and ease in his passing. He is a fascinating man, a man of great curiosity and a great ability to share the things that fascinate him, and the world needs more like him, not less.
posted by maxsparber at 6:34 AM on February 19, 2015 [7 favorites]


There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Such a thoughtful man. Such a shame.
posted by biscotti at 6:53 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


Great piece. I most enjoyed his words about feeling happy for the smart and energy-filled and fearless young people who just keep on coming along, despite how much trouble they've got to fix in front of them.
posted by colie at 7:05 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Next time there's a discussion about "why should anyone care about extending life spans?" I'm sending them a link to this.
posted by the jam at 7:07 AM on February 19, 2015


That was so beautifully written I'm just in awe of Sacks, that he can approach a certain end with a sense of wonder and courage. What an amazing person.
posted by mathowie at 7:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Charming, funny, wonderful writer. I wonder how many people went on to careers in neurology and other medical fields because his writing cast a spell on them. He has such great gifts and shared them so well.
posted by sallybrown at 7:09 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


What gentle well-earned grace. That, and his curiosity, and his radical, calm honesty . . . we've been blessed monkeys to have him as one of ours, and I hope his last chapter is a wonderful adventure for him ( ". . . and silliness . . .")
posted by pt68 at 7:11 AM on February 19, 2015 [6 favorites]


Boswell's account of his visit to Hume on his deathbed seems appropriate.
posted by pw201 at 7:31 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not all of The Good die young: in this case, we got many good years and good words from Dr. Sacks.

DigDoug: now I want the words "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" to hang on my wall to remind me of what's really important.
posted by wenestvedt at 7:45 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


This is heartbreaking news.

I met Sacks briefly around ten years ago at a writing festival hosted by my college. I was one of the winners at a writing awards dinner, and Sacks was the last-minute replacement guest speaker when another pro writer couldn't make it. Sacks appeared delighted to fill in, and he was kind and gracious to us, the small flock of overawed young undergrad-writers.

My favorite memory I have of his visit is from a speech he gave in the university auditorium, at a podium decorated with ribbons and a small potted houseplant. Once while reaching for his water glass, Sacks nearly knocked the pot off the podium. As he lunged to catch it, Sacks apologized briefly yet profusely to the plant for disturbing it.
posted by nicebookrack at 7:47 AM on February 19, 2015 [25 favorites]


Ursula Hitler, thank you from the bottom of my heart for this:

Don't just consume; create....Don't ever forget that you are going to die, because you will die, and probably a lot sooner than you think. Think about what really matters to you, what you would regret if you found out you were about to die, and do that shit now.

And for Dr. Sacks, I am also deeply grateful for his work, and for his truly wonderful example of how to live. Still teaching us, right up to his end.
posted by LooseFilter at 8:08 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


;
posted by alms at 8:14 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Dr. Sacks is among the best of us. Even now, he's teaching us both what it is to be human, and what it should be.
posted by cotton dress sock at 8:27 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


On a motorcycle, 1961
posted by maggieb at 8:46 AM on February 19, 2015 [14 favorites]


Oh no.

And what a lovely piece of writing that is: simple, plain, and deeply humanist:
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.
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 9:30 AM on February 19, 2015 [2 favorites]


I love Dr. Sacks' work, and one of my treasured memories is a talk he gave at Columbia to the theatre grad students (and others) about how the mind of an actor works, particularly in terms of ability to memorize large amounts of text (if I only had him around for every theatre talkback, where someone inevitably asks, "how did the actors memorize their lines?") It's no surprise to me that he embarks on this journey as an opportunity for study, reflection, and creation. He of all people knows what we are capable of, and how it is still possible to live one's best life despite adversity.
posted by ilana at 9:38 AM on February 19, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well I'm thankful that I'm not dying. I certainly haven't been dying from the moment I was born.
posted by GuyZero at 9:39 AM on February 19, 2015


maggieb: I think I'd seen that picture before but it stuns me every time. Just hotter than hell.
posted by Sheydem-tants at 11:14 AM on February 19, 2015 [3 favorites]


This was a really intimate, personal article. Thank you for posting this.

"There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends."

People in general would be a lot happier if they adhered to this mantra even without the unfortunate diagnosis.

And:

"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."

How beautiful!
posted by gemutlichkeit at 11:15 AM on February 19, 2015 [4 favorites]


Such a sad reason for writing a fantastic article. Uncle Tungsten is one of my favourite books, and should be read by anyone who is slightly interested in chemistry. Though it will make you regret the modern world's (perfectly sensible) obsession with safety which makes it so hard to buy mercury and other fun reactive chemicals.
posted by kjs4 at 5:42 PM on February 19, 2015


This is heartbreaking.
posted by homunculus at 7:03 PM on February 19, 2015


There is an odd thing that occurs to me, that these warnings of death -- Sacks', Ursula Hitler's, and my own last year -- start out so abstractly. One day you're healthy, but you go in for a checkup and there's a blob on a scan here or a bloodwork test there or a reading on the blood pressure meter and suddenly you are in mortal peril.

Last month a couple of technicians who were doing a now-routine carotid ultrasound on me remembered the incident where my blood pressure exploded on the treadmill a year ago and they had stopped the test and called my doctor. 85% blocked LAD, it turned out. Looking at their notes, the techs nodded in agreement. "You'd have had the heart attack by now if you hadn't come in," they agreed.

I went in because I was testing my blood pressure once a month or so for yuks and all of a sudden it was always 190/120. Morning, noon, night, whatever. Took me about a month longer than it should have to call a doctor. Even so, all the techs at the big testing day (You do realize this is $1200 after your deductible and 20%?) were like "so you had chest pains or a fainting spell?" No, just numbers on a meter. They were all visibly surprised that I'd come in for just that.

Patterns on a scanner.
The seeds of death, written in bits and pixels.

The word I dare not say now is "reocclusion." I had to have two angiograms, because the first was inconclusive, so I spent the night in the hospital and on the other side of the hospital room was a guy who was there to have his TENTH stent put in. What. The. Fuck?

I can accept the fact that there is a cycle of life and death, but there's really a strangeness about this way of encountering it that I think is kind of new to us. We're used to the idea that Death will sneak up behind you and snatch you without warning. But it's much stranger when He rings the doorbell and anounces that He plans to cross the threshold next month.
posted by localroger at 7:41 PM on February 19, 2015 [8 favorites]


He has such an impressive body of writing, thinking, research, treatment. He has set an example of intellect, curiosity and genuine compassion, and now he's setting an example on how to manage the end of life with grace, wisdom, dignity. Once again, he knocks my socks off.
posted by theora55 at 8:31 AM on February 20, 2015 [1 favorite]


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