I recently came home to find a sticker with the phrase "What Would Oliver Sacks Do?" sitting on the living-room table. It had been brought back by my husband from his monthly podcast group, where they'd discussed Sacks after listening to his feature on an episode of Radiolab. I put the sticker up on the refrigerator as a reminder to myself, then quickly realized that I didn't know much about the renowned neurologist and author who died last August.
"What would Oliver Sacks do?" I said to my husband as he prepared dinner that night. "I honestly don't know that much about him, except that people seemed to really like him and Robin Williams played him in that movie Awakenings."
"What do you mean?" he replied. "Give me a situation."
Given my recent week, it was hard to narrow it down to one. What, I wondered, would Oliver Sacks do if he was spending too much time on the internet reading about yet another mass shooting? What would Oliver Sacks do if his toddler daughter was driving him bonkers and he felt the urge to escape for a week or ten? (He didn't have kids.)
I resolved to find out more. That's how I arrived at Gratitude, a new book collecting Sacks' four final essays, originally published in the New York Times. The final essay, "Sabbath," was finished just two days before Sacks' death from terminal melanoma on August 30, 2015. I read most of the slim volume (the perfect holiday gift, really) in one sitting, highlighting passages along the way.
As I read Sacks' elegant observations, I thought about how much we need elders in our lives -- as spiritual guides, as mentors, as people who have lived in this cruel, messy world for decades and come out the other side.
In the book's opening essay "Mercury," Sacks writes:
"At eighty, one can take the long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was forty or sixty. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together."
As a mother bound by daily "fractitious urgencies" of life, be they the continuous tiny, urgent acts involved in child-rearing; paying the bills and keeping the household together; or dealing with the hourly barrage of terrible news pouring in from all corners of the globe, Dr. Sacks' commentary felt, for me, like a much-needed relief valve, a loosening of tension.
In "My Own Life," I was particularly struck by another passage:
"I have been increasingly conscious, for the last ten years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for that is the fate -- the genetic and neural fate -- of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death."
Since I became a mother nearly three years ago, my sense of life's preciousness has grown much more acute. As I struggle to comprehend the next new massacre, in the U.S. and across the world (including not just the big, news-blown killings, but the more subtle ones from climate change, civil war, and poverty), I find myself reflecting on this passage. What Sacks offers is sanity -- to view each wild and precious life as something special, to be recognized, remembered and mourned. Like the good doctor, I refuse to abide by nihilism.
What would Oliver Sacks do? I'm still working out the answer. I do know that today, with Gratitude on my mind, instead of rushing home after my daughter's music class, as we usually do, I suggested a walk through the neighborhood. We stopped in at a crowded cafe, where we shared a hot chocolate and admired the holiday decorations. We pointed out circles. We talked about how good the hot chocolate was. Through it all, I basked in my daughter's smile beaming from her sweet round face.
On a simple Friday afternoon, I like to think that Oliver Sacks might have been pleased with that small, needed moment.
'Gratitude' was released Nov. 24, 2015 and is available now.