In his February 19, 2015, New York Times’ opinion piece, My Own Life, Dr. Oliver Sacks illustrates how fast things can change. If you missed his article, it’s a stirring description of what it’s like to feel good and robust at one moment and discover a metastasized cancer tumor at the next. There is nothing unique about this situation — it happens all the time. What is unusual is that a person takes the time to write about it and the ending of life with intimacy and clarity.
Dr. Sacks, a neurologist who has written many books about our brains and how they work — my personal favorite is Musicicophilia — is in his eighties and a professor at New York University’s School of Medicine. The movie Awakenings, with Robin Williams portraying Dr. Sacks, was based on his book of the same name.
In his New York Times article he turns his physician’s eye for detail toward describing what it feels like to learn that a medical condition is untreatable and then toward examining what comes afterwards.That death is coming is certain, but Dr. Sacks addresses it with gracious acceptance and gratitude. On the other hand, Dr. Sacks, always a master teacher, outlines for us, his readers, his process of figuring out what is important to do and say and how to live over the time that he has left. “I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is not time for anything inessential,” he writes.
My Own Life generated 808 comments, almost all of them recalling how Oliver Sacks influenced lives through books, essays, education, and medical care. You can also read three of the best letters to the editor that were published in the printed paper.
Always a master teacher, Sacks is now showing us how to approach the end of life with grace, inspiration, humanity, and most importantly, with decreased fear.