mercury

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Sacks

I read this past weekend “The Joy of Old Age. (No Kidding.)” by one of my favorite science writers, Oliver Sacks. Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the N.Y.U. School of Medicine and the author of some great books, including Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, and Hallucinations.

It has been a week of birthdays:  friends, my wife, one of my sons – and Oliver Sacks turns 80 on July 9.

In the opinion column, he talks about having a dream about mercury. Not the planet, but the quicksilver, which coincidentally (or perhaps not coincidentally at all) is element number 80. Not to attach some other world power to the dream, he had once given a friend a special bottle of mercury that could neither leak nor break for his 80th birthday.

I am a few decades from 80 on my next birthday, but it is one with a zero and those do seem to hit a bit harder. What’s great about Sacks’ article is that despite some medical issues (“none disabling” he says) he is quite glad to be alive. He hears himself sometimes saying “I’m glad I’m not dead!”

I commented to my wife this past week that I do think more about mortality lately. I wake up some mornings and my first thought is “Yes, I made it to another day.” Like Sacks, I would rather not take on the attitude of Samuel Beckett who, on a perfect Paris spring morning, was asked “Doesn’t a day like this make you glad to be alive?” to which he replied, “I wouldn’t go as far as that.”

He doesn’t want to be like some others he has encountered in his practice who say “I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.” They are ready for heaven (:always heaven rather than hell”), but Sacks has “no belief in (or desire for) any post-mortem existence, other than in the memories of friends and the hope that some of my books may still ‘speak’ to people after my death.”

He agrees with Freud that he just wants some more years to do the two most important things, love and work. I’m not as sure about the work part lately, but I think that requires a rethinking of what each of us means by work.

Oliver Sacks’ father lived to 94 and thought his 80s had been a wonderful decade. My dad died in his early 50s, so I found it incredibly strange that I passed his age. Older than your father? It seemed wrong.

I like Sacks’ closing on why he is looking forward to the next decade of his life.

One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.

I hope he gets to do it all for a few more decades.

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