The passing of former Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco had me thinking again of Oliver Sacks, the famous neuroscientist who died in 2015 of the same kind of cancer that claimed Blanco’s life.
Sacks is best known for his wise, poignant and sometimes funny books about the human brain. “Awakenings,” Sacks’ 1973 book about his efforts to help patients trapped in their own bodies because of encephalitis, was made into a 1990 movie starring Robin Williams.
“Like Blanco, Sacks was treated for an ocular melanoma and was encouraged when he regained his health,” I told readers in a column last year. “Like the former governor, Sacks was also disappointed to learn that the melanoma had spread to his liver. Like Blanco, Sacks used a newspaper essay to make his illness public. And as Blanco (did) in confronting her own illness, Sacks embraced the theme of gratitude — yes, gratitude — in facing mortality.”
In the final months of his life, Sacks wrote a series of columns for The New York Times arguing how lucky he was, in spite of his diagnosis, to have been granted a full life. Those columns, collected in a small book called “Gratitude,” are a continuing education in how to make the most of life, even — or perhaps especially — when time is short.
In the wake of his health news, Sacks noted back then, ”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. On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships. … I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential.”
Those words have renewed relevance at the end of a summer touched by too many reminders of life’s fleetingness. Mass shootings in Texas and Ohio brought that message home, as did the death of New Orleans TV journalist Nancy Parker, who had previously worked in Baton Rouge, in a plane crash.
Sacks had already been on my mind this season because “Everything in Its Place,” a new book assembling some of Sacks’ previously uncollected work, was on my summer reading list.
In the book’s most poignant essay, “Life Continues,” Sacks again draws on his perspective as a dying man to reflect on what really seems important. He was especially grieved by how much time we waste looking at screens instead of the people around us. As he put it, “attention to people and things around one have largely disappeared, at least in big cities, where a majority of the population is now glued almost without pause to their phones or other devices.”
The deeper connections Sacks championed are too easily forgotten. Lucky for us that his words are still around to help us remember.
Email Danny Heitman at firstname.lastname@example.org.