‘Gratitude’ by Oliver Sacks


2015, 45 p.

There is something that makes you slow down your reading when you realize that the author whose work you hold in your hand has little time left to live. When the author is as much published as Oliver Sacks is, you read with the hollow knowledge that you will not hear this narrative voice, or be drawn into this same narrative world again.

This small, beautifully produced hardback, contains four essays written in the last years of his life – and indeed, the final essay, ‘Sabbath’ was written within weeks of his death from metastasized liver cancer, stemming from a rare melanoma in his eye.  The essays are only about 8 to 10 pages in length, and you could read all four in one sitting if you wanted to. But to read them in a rush would feel somehow irreverent, and lacking in grace.

In ‘Mercury’, he reflects on reaching his 80th year – Mercury being 80 on the Periodic Table, a way of seeing the world that he explained (in rather too much detail, I thought) in ‘Uncle Tungsten’. His regrets at 80? That he had wasted, and continued to waste, so much time; that he spoke only his mother tongue and that he had not travelled and experienced other cultures as widely as he should have. He cited his own father, who lived to 94, who had said that his 80s were the most enjoyable decades of his life. This reminded me of my own father, who died quietly of heart failure two years ago in January.  My father, like Oliver Sack’s father, (and probably Oliver Sacks himself too), had seen it all before and could see the patterns:

One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s life, but others’ too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At eighty, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. (p. 10)

‘My Own Life’ was written in haste after learning that the cancer had metastasized, and after some hesitation, it was published in the New York Times as he entered the surgery that was to give him a few extra healthy months to live. He took the title of his essay from philosopher David Hume, who wrote the original ‘My Own Life’ as he lay mortally ill at 65 years of age. He was particularly struck by Hume’s statement “It is difficult to be more detached from life than I am at present”. Sacks writes that he too feels detached, but not indifferent: instead he feels focussed and that the big problems of the world are now in the hands of another generation. After listing the things he feels gratitude for – for loving and being loved; for received and given in return; for having read, travelled, thought and written, he writes:

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. (p. 20)

‘My Periodic Table’ is almost a continuation of the opening essay, and his return to his childhood habit of surrounding himself with metals and minerals, “little emblems of eternity” when he felt under stress.

The final essay ‘Sabbath’ is the most ’rounded’ of the essays which, to be honest, feel a little tentative and unfinished. Recalling the Sabbaths of his Orthodox childhood, and the feeling of being embraced by family after finally visiting Israel on a family visit (something he swore he would never do), he found himself “drenched with a wistfulness” for the peace of the Sabbath.  His closing words refer to the Sabbath, not so much as a spiritual or religious practice, but as a sense of completeness and rest. It’s beautiful.

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. (p. 45)

Rating: 8.5 /10

Sourced from: An op shop somewhere.  I wonder if the person who bought it, or for whom it was bought, ever read it?

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