We all know by now that the neurologist and author Oliver Sacks died recently (30 August 2015) at the age of 82.
In the New York Times obituary (31 August), his long-time personal assistant Kate Edgar, who described herself as his “collaborator, friend, researcher and editor” as well, wrote just before his death: “He is still writing with great clarity. We are pretty sure he will go with fountain pen in hand.”
Such a fitting image for the man who brought such clarity of understanding in his writings about neurology and the human condition in general. He was also a compassionate and empathetic man who remarked years ago when asked how he wanted to be remembered,
“I would like it to be thought that I had listened carefully to what patients and others have told me, that I’ve tried to imagine what it was like for them, and that I tried to convey this.”
“And, to use a biblical term,” he added, “bore witness.”
As the obituary notes, he also bore witness to his own dwindling life, writing reflective essays even in his last days. In February, Sacks wrote in an essay for the New York Times that he was in the late stages of a melanoma that had spread to his liver. He finished his last piece for the paper, entitled “Sabbath,”by describing the Jewish day of rest in broad terms.
He finished the piece in this way: “And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life— achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
Of his various books that I have read, I especially was drawn to Musicophilia. A skilled pianist, Sacks often wrote about the relationship between music and the mind. To Sacks, music had the ability to reach dementia patients as evidence that music appreciation is hard-wired into the brain. “I haven’t heard of a human being who isn’t musical, or who doesn’t respond to music one way or another,” he told an audience at Columbia University in 2006. “I think we are an essentially, profoundly musical species. And I don’t know whether, for all I know, language piggybacked on music.”
Referring to Nietzsche’s claim that listening to Bizet had made him a better philosopher, Sacks said, “I think Mozart makes me a better neurologist.”
In reflecting on Sacks, I picked up on something the anthropologist Loren Eiseley once said. In a quote worthy of Sacks, he spoke about the evolution of the brain and the development of consciousness in humans: “For the first time in 4 billion years a living creature had contemplated himself and heard with a sudden, unaccountable loneliness, the whisper of wind in the night reeds.”
So as we sense that the world has become a lesser place with the passing of Sacks, I prefer to think of his legacy rather than his death. Indeed, he is most alive amid the melodies and with his patients listening to the whisper of the wind. While enjoying some encore radio interviews with him these past couple of days, I have learned to feel comfortable enough in my own mind to call him by his first name. So I will take a cue from Oliver and hope that when my time comes to rest that I will also go out with a sense of bearing witness and with a fountain pen in hand.