After reading the newspaper each morning for years now, I’ve grown accustomed to getting bad news over breakfast.
Or so I thought.
Nothing could really prepare me for taking my first sip of the day’s coffee last month and learning that Oliver Sacks is dying of cancer.
Sacks, the 81-year old neurologist and author, announced his diagnosis in an op-ed in The New York Times. It was just like Sacks, who’s always seemed curious about everything, to discuss his coming exit as a chance to learn something.
“Over the last few days, 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. This does not mean I am finished with life,” Sacks told readers of his essay, which quickly went viral on the Internet. “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. … But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).”
Among Sacks’ many books about medicine is “Awakenings,” which chronicled his involvement in a drug therapy that revived victims of sleeping sickness. The book was adapted into a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams as Sacks.
I arrived late for a screening and was forced to sit in the front row, which made everything on the screen seem huge. I spent the next 90 minutes peering into Williams’ nostrils. It was like passing an evening shaded by Washington’s nose on Mount Rushmore.
I remember thinking that Sacks probably would have appreciated my ordeal. One of his abiding subjects is the way that the slightest change in human perception can make us feel like aliens on our own planet. He’s especially interested in how this happens as a result of odd neurological disorders. The titles of books such as “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars” hint at Sacks’ quirky perspective.
News of Sacks’ terminal illness might inspire newcomers to check out his work. I recommend starting with “Uncle Tungsten,” Sacks’ charming 2001 memoir of his English boyhood. It’s ostensibly about his early love affair with science, although in the broader sense, the story really concerns childhood wonder — and the best way to keep that wonder as we trade youth for responsibility.
“Was it the inevitable course, the natural history of enthusiasm,” he asks, “that it burns hotly, brightly, like a star for a while, and then, exhausting itself, gutters out, is gone?”
Sacks has demonstrated that our sense of awe can be a lifelong gift, even as the deathbed looms. It’s a legacy his books will keep alive long after he’s gone.
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.