In “Mercury,” the first of four all-too-brief essays that together comprise the final thin volume of his writings, entitled Gratitude, Oliver Sacks writes of his patients “in their nineties or hundreds” who “say nunc dimittis—‘I have had a full life, and now I am ready to go.’”
Throughout these essays, there is a feeling that Sacks himself is preparing his own nunc dimmis, his own statement of departure. As here, in this statement taken from the same essay:
“I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever ‘completing a life’ means.”
Oliver Sacks died in August 2015, just months after the publication of his superb memoir, On the Move.
In it, he introduced the reader to a cast of characters, each of whom helped shaped Sacks into the man he became. His mother and father, his marvelous aunt, his troubled brother Michael, as well as some famous names, W. H. Auden, who taught Sacks that every birthday must be celebrated, no matter the number, no matter the circumstances, and Francis Crick, who unraveled the mysteries of DNA, and who taught Sacks even by his approach to death and dying.
Here, each is recalled once more, allowing the reader to share one more embrace, one more kiss on the cheek. Auden predicts that he himself will live to be 80, after which he will “bugger off” (he missed the target by three years and died at 77). Crick, told that he was dying of colon cancer, “simply looked into the distance for a minute and then resumed his previous train of thought. When pressed about his diagnosis a few weeks later, he said, ‘Whatever has a beginning must have an ending.’”
The four essays in Gratitude were written during the last four years of Sacks’s life.
The first, “Mercury,” was written as Sacks faced the continuance of life, and not death. Written on the eve of an important birthday, it begins:
“Last night I dreamed about mercury—huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be eighty myself.
“Elements and birthdays have been intertwined for me since boyhood, when I learned bout atomic numbers. At eleven, I could way, ‘I am sodium’ (element 11), and now at seventy-nine, I am gold.”
The second, “My Own Life,” shares a title with philosopher David Hume’s own brief memoir. It introduces the concept of mortality with the diagnosis of a rare cancer, an ocular melanoma, which will not only blind Sacks in one eye, but will also metastasize into his liver. As he quite simply puts it, “I am among the unlucky ones.”
In this essay, Sacks creates one of those passages that populate so many of his books, from Awakenings to The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat to the extraordinary The Mind’s Eye:
“Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as sort of a 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, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”
The third essay, “My Periodic Table,” was written by Oliver Sacks at ago 82. In it, Sacks turns, as he has done since childhood, to science. With his tumor now growing out of control and death nearing, Sacks writes:
“I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss—losing people dear to me—by turning to the nonhuman . . . Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.”
And his own personal nunc dimittis, when it comes, comes in the form of the fourth and final essay, “Sabbath,” in which he recalls the Sabbath as it was practiced in his parents’ Orthodox Jewish household. And in which he writes once again, after having first revealed it in his memoir, On the Move, of his mother’s reaction on learning that her son was a homosexual:
“You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born.”
In a memoir even briefer than the one that Hume wrote in a single day after having been given a diagnosis of fatal illness, Sacks here leaps across the stepping-stones of his life, his days on Venice Beach when he was passionately involved in muscle building, his “near-suicidal addiction to amphetamines in the 1960s,” and his slow recovery after he moved to New York City and began work with patients in chronic care—the work that would ultimately lead to his book Awakenings and transformed his life.
“Sabbath” was created to show, one last time, the landscape of Sacks’s life, including the creation of his memoir and the publication of the first essays of this collection, each of which found a home in The New York Times. It also recalls a visit to Israel on the occasion of a hundredth birthday celebration of a beloved cousin.
During the visit, Sacks once more encountered his deeply religious family.
He writes, “I had left a little fearful visiting my Orthodox family with my lover, Billy—mother’s words still echoed in my mind—but Billy too was warmly received.”
Thus, old hurts are healed, old thoughts and fears and memories good and bad are taken out once more and examined, then put away again or discarded.
And final words are given, of which, this is a small part:
“I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life—achieving a sense of peace within oneself.”
And gratitude? Gratitude is everywhere in these pages. Much discussed, and clenched close to the chest. As here:
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved I have been given much and I have given something in return . . . Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
To say that this tiny book is perhaps Oliver Sacks’s best is not to overstate. These are essays to be read and pondered, not just once, but again and again. Gratitude, therefore, represents a perfect thing, a collection of pages onto which an author, whose gifts combined a medical mind with a storyteller’s voice, committed his experience leaving life after having lived it to the fullest.