Passings and Passages
We are losing a friend soon, far sooner than we want to. The wonderful, brilliant, funny, insightful, awed and awe inspiring Oliver Sacks has written his own elegy. The rare cancer of the eye that he was treated for nine years ago has done something equally unusual—it has metastasized to his liver. Dr. Sacks can fight the battle, but he cannot win the war, and the tumors eventually will take him.
I said “elegy” but I was wrong, because there is nothing elegiac about it. Sacks is one of life's great enthusiasts: “I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all my passions.”
I said “friend” without ever meeting him, without ever exchanging a single word, not an email, or a tweet, not the smallest electron. I don’t know him at all, except from his acutely observant but joyous books, and his charming appearances on TV. He might be a bear in person, perhaps eccentric to the point of exasperating. He is linked in many people’s minds with Robin Williams’ portrayal of him in “Awakenings” and I wonder if that wasn’t an inspired choice, despite the obvious dissimilarities. Perhaps the two share the same quicksilver intelligence along with dispositions, enthusiasms and extreme immoderation.
Sacks’ genius isn’t just of the mind—it's also the generosity of his spirit. Read his books and you open yourself up just a bit to the great kaleidoscope of his world. I love “Musicophilia,” which includes a spot-on description of the dreaded earworm, those little scraps of music that embed themselves on continuous loops in our brain. I happen to be very susceptible to the dirge-like. “Te Deum” from Verdi’s Tosca is a killer—it can stay with me for days, even while (especially while) I’m running in Central Park.
Yet, I think his most accessible, his most alive, is “Uncle Tungsten” the story of his boyhood growing up in an absurdly scientific, endlessly stimulating household. There’s a cool manufacturing plant that makes light bulbs (hence, the tungsten) and a collection of odd relatives, and all types of apparatus scattered everywhere, and smack in the middle of it is the supremely inquisitive Oliver, just having a gas soaking up a nerdy kid’s delights.
I don’t think you lose someone like Oliver Sacks, because he stays with you. His humanity is palpable—he admits to fear, and yet he retains openness and gratitude. “I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return.”
There is a lot of darkness in the world right now. I was going to write about some of it—about all the horrible acts committed, about Islamic terrorists and broken ceasefires in Ukraine, and bizarre statements by former Mayors of New York, and even the awful weather, which dims the sun and beats us back into domestic incarceration.
Yet, I can’t. No politics this week. There is time enough to examine, to criticize, to praise and to mock. We have an absolute abundance of material, and if there is a certainty, it is that it will be there next week and the week after, season after season, like the evergreen.
It just doesn’t seem to be the right time and place to moan when someone so extraordinary accepts a harsh reality and reaches for the light. “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.”
To do these things, Sacks needs to husband that strength, and focus his energies. No more time for the NewsHour, and no more attention to arguments about politics and global warming. He takes note of the friends and colleagues he has lost, “(E)ach death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself.”
Yet, he remains an optimist. “I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.”
It is an optimism that must come from an unquenchable joy. Share it with him--grab the New York Times, or, better yet, read one of his books, and find the pleasure he takes in so many things, and make one of them your own.
February 23, 2015
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