milky way

Dr. Oliver Sacks is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and the author, most recently, of the memoir On the Move: A Life.

I wrote earlier here about the announcement that Sacks is dying and how he is dealing with it. Mostly, he is living. He is reading, probably writing, traveling when he can.

This morning I read a piece by Oliver Sacks in The New York Times titled “My Periodic Table.” He writes about what he has been doing in the past few months – treatments, visits, his reading and thinking. What caught me the most was this passage about simply looking up at the stars – something I do too much, if you really can ever spend “too much” time staring in wonder at the universe.

A few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death.

I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.”

“We’ll wheel you outside,” they said.

I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

Joseph Campbell described the stars as “Eternity shining through the lattice-work of time.”

Annie Dillard described looking up one night as seeing “The tree with the lights in it”

After reading Dr. Sacks’ article, my next click brought me to The Writer’s Almanac, a daily online stop for me.  With the Sacks’ words in my mind, I read that it was on this day in 1788 that Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart entered into his catalog the completion of Symphony Number 40 in G Minor (sometimes called “The Great G Minor Symphony”). This was a symphony written in the final years of Mozart’s life. It was a sad period of his life. His infant daughter had died a few weeks earlier. He was living in a cheaper apartment, and begging friends for loans.

In that sad summer of 1788, he wrote his last three symphonies: Symphony Number 39 in E-Flat, Symphony #40 in G Minor, and the Symphony #41 (often called the Jupiter symphony).

We have no evidence that Mozart ever heard any of these symphonies performed.

I thought that I should listen to Symphony Number 40 and reread the article by Dr. Sacks. Might I hear something in the music that echoes in the words? Or perhaps, it is Symphony Number 41’s (Jupiter) finale that we might expect to be sad and slow, but instead shows power, that I hear it. Do not go gently.

Oliver Sacks has had a lifelong love of the periodic table of elements. He has collected examples of them and has associated the numbers with years of his life.

Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.

I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table — my periodic table — I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas


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