Oliver Sacks. Doctor Oliver Sacks. Neurologist. Wonderful teller of clinical tales. Science for the masses. One of his teachers wrote of Oliver at 12: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.”
In February of this year, he wrote a piece for The New York Times titled “My Own Life.”
A month ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. The radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye. But though ocular melanomas metastasize in perhaps 50 percent of cases, given the particulars of my own case, the likelihood was much smaller. I am among the unlucky ones.
Oliver Sacks is dying. We are all dying, but he will probably die before many of us.
He has written an autobiography. I suppose it might be his last book. It confirms what I knew from his books. That he has a wonderful and compassionate curiosity and that he has had it throughout his life and long before he became the doctor.
On the Move: A Life is the title and it refers to a poem by his friend Thom Gunn: “At worst, one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Oliver Sacks has never been very still.
I know him by his books that I have read – The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat, Awakenings, The Island of the Colorblind and Migraine – but I knew little about his own life other than what came out in those books. And those books are about other people. Clinical cases.
On the Move: A Life is an autobiography. There are the bio facts that you can find on Wikipedia and other places. He goes to Queen’s College, Oxford, in 1951, gets a Bachelor of Arts degree in physiology and biology, gets a BM BCh, qualifying him to practice medicine. He leaves England for Canada then the United States. He does a residency in San Francisco.
What I didn’t know was that while living there he experimented heavily with various recreational drugs. (See the video below and his book Hallucinations which I need to read.) He writes about an epiphany he had while reading a book on a huge dose of amphetamines. The book, by the 19th century migraine physician Edward Liveing, made him realize that what he wanted to do was write and share his own observations of neurological diseases and oddities.
I didn’t know that Sacks had been a world-champion weightlifter, that he loved speed and motorcycles or how sadly he walked through the 1960s as a gay man.
I really enjoyed his stories that are much smaller. I like that we both see something special in observing horseshoe crabs mate on a beach, knowing they were doing that 400 million years ago. I imagine he might also look up at the night sky, as I do, and see the past and the future.
Oliver Sacks has soul.
At the end of On the Move, he writes:
I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. 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.
I cannot pretend I am without fear. But 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; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.
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 miss him already.