(Reprinted as “Oliver Sacks Has Died in Peace,” in the online magazine of the Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, September 2, 2015)
I have written previously (here and here) about the impending death of the great author and neurologist Oliver Sacks. Now his death is no longer impeding. Sacks died this morning at his home in New York City. (Here is the link to the story from the front page of the New York Times.)
In both of my previous post I commented briefly on opinion pieces Sacks had written in the Times. His last piece, which I read with great interest, was published in the Times just a few weeks ago and I almost wrote about it yesterday. It had a simple and yet surprising title for an atheist. He simply called it “Sabbath.”
Sacks had an Orthodox Jewish upbringing so childhood memories of the sabbath were vivid. How special the Sabbath was, with the ritual of the evening meal and the sound of the Hebrew prayers in the Synagogue. How his entire extended family met after the service at an aunt or uncle’s home. But after the Second World War members of that extended family emigrated to other parts of the world or became more secular. “Our synagogue, which would be packed to capacity when I was a child, grew emptier by the year.”
Sacks found that he too was losing his faith. And at age 18 made a shocking revelation to his father—he was attracted to other boys. He asked his father not to tell his mother.
He did tell her, and the next morning she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: “You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.” … The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion’s capacity for bigotry and cruelty.
After becoming a doctor in 1960, Sacks moved to the United States where he eventually he found meaningful work in a chronic care hospital in the Bronx. (He is referring to the hospital that he wrote about in his 1973 book Awakenings, which was made into ayhr wonderful film Awakenings starring Robin Williams and Robert Di Niro. ) As Sacks put it:
I was fascinated by my patients there, cared for them deeply, and felt something of a mission to tell their stories — stories of situations virtually unknown, almost unimaginable, to the general public and, indeed, to many of my colleagues. I had discovered my vocation, and this I pursued doggedly, single-mindedly, with little encouragement from my colleagues … It was a lonely but deeply satisfying, almost monkish existence that I was to lead for many years.
Many years he became good friends with his cousin Robert John Aumann who received the Nobel Prize for economics in 2005. Aumann spoke frequently of how observing the Sabbath improved the quality of one’s life. When Sacks found out he had cancer that same year, Aumann came to visit. As Sacks recalls: “He … made a point of saying that, had he been compelled to travel to Stockholm on a Saturday, he would have refused the prize. His commitment to the Sabbath, its utter peacefulness and remoteness from worldly concerns, would have trumped even a Nobel.”
And then just last year “hearing that my cousin Marjorie — a physician who had been a protégée of my mother’s and had worked in the field of medicine till the age of 98 — was nearing death, I phoned her in Jerusalem to say farewell.” She asked him to come to her 100th birthday and Sacks agreed, going back to his roots after almost 60 years. He was embraced by all, as was his partner. The two were invited to the family Sabbath meal where he found a peaceful nostalgia. I’ll let the last few published lines from his prose speak for themselves.
In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.
In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.
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.
Thank you Dr. Sacks for living a good life. Your well-lived life has enriched many others.