Dr. Oliver Sacks: choosing to live his last few months “in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can”

By Dave Andrusko

Editor’s note. One of the single most fascinating men you will ever encounter passed away yesterday at his home in Manhattan. Dr. Oliver Sacks was 82. We wrote about him last February on the occasion of an extraordinary essay he’d penned for the New York Times.

Prof. Oliver Sacks

Prof. Oliver Sacks

In my opinion, my few comments and, far more importantly, what Dr. Sacks had to say, are worth revisiting. It is even more significant in light of the very disappointing pro-assisted suicide column written by George Wills which we discuss elsewhere today at National Right to Life News Today.

You may not know who Oliver Sacks is, but you may well be familiar with some of his work. He is a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine and a prolific author.

You may have seen the movie “Awakenings,” starring Robert De Niro. That incredible film was adapted from Sacks’ book.

Or you may have heard a reference to “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat,” arguably Sacks’ most famous work. (My favorite was “Seeing Voices.”)

I mention Prof. Sacks because he penned a remarkable essay last week for the New York Times, “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer.”

Please take my word on it, take five minutes and read the essay.

There is so much to take away from reflections which take up only 873 words. As he tells us in the first paragraph he is one of the “unlucky 2 percent.” Nine years ago Sacks had a rare tumor of the eye which was radiated and lasered. But he discovered a few weeks ago that the tumor had metastasized.

The essay is about what he did with that knowledge and what it means for the remainder of his life.

In the face of a cancer that now occupies a third of his liver, Sacks begins by expressing gratitude for those nine years of good health. Those were very productive years for him.

And then the pivotal paragraph:

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.

No bravado—he does not pretend to be without fear—just a determination to take counsel from some others (particularly philosopher David Hume) whose own deaths were, if not impending, close at hand. This allows him to step outside, at least somewhat, his immediate situation.

For instance, Sacks tells us that although “Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” by no means does this signal that “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.

Sacks is attending to those essential interconnections that he has made in his life. At the risk of stating the obvious (to our readers), none of this would be possible if Sacks chose assisted suicide.

Consider this paragraph which comes near the end of the essay and how it aligns with our views. (I have no idea where Sacks personally stands on our issues but for our purposes here, that is beside the point.)

“I have been increasingly conscious,” he writes

for the last 10 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 it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual…

Exactly. We are not interchangeable parts. Each one of us unique. We cannot be replaced—and that applies just as much to the unborn child who is never allowed to take a breath outside the womb as it is to someone who has lived 5 years, ten years, or, in Sacks’ case, 81 years, or more.

Sacks ends where he began. His “predominant feeling,” he writes, “is one of gratitude.” A gratitude for life, for the friendships he has made, the people he loves, the work he has accomplished.

This does not mean that we have to be famous authors and respected academicians either to be grateful or to be deemed ‘worthy’ by the quality of life set that is habitually on the hunt for categories of people whom they can dispatch of.

We can be grateful just for who we are and protected for that very same reason—just because we are.