Yesterday driving home from Madison and listening to Oliver Sacks in a recent interview with RadioLab. He is angry and ineffably saddened by the cancer prognosis that will shorten a rich life. Not surprisingly, he is working on multiple books despite being told that he has months left. He is also laughing, full of awe, and wholly himself. For me, Oliver Sacks is a longtime touchstone of sanity and the kind of generosity that blossoms from a creative intellect but expands far beyond the mind, emanating from the heart. If I could save someone, if I had the equivalent of a “Tim Gunn Save” for people I love, Oliver Sacks would be on that list.
Years ago, when I put together a list of people I’d like to have involved in my book about journals, I reached out to the good doctor. He is not an Artist, but he is the kind of creative person of whom I could imagine a visual journal being a regular practice. Somewhere in my house I have Sacks’ handwritten response. [Postscript: I came across this short letter, which was actually typed but with a charmingly messy hand drawn squid, literally two hours after writing this post; I hadn’t seen it in years and was unsure if I even still had it!] Kind-hearted and impish, he said how he wished he kept such a journal but regrettably he did not, and good luck with my project. It was a letter that could easily have never been sent or fobbed off to an assistant or dashed as an email. Its existence means so much to me and speaks volumes about how we can live our lives. In the interview — as in his new memoir — Sacks speaks of a life of romantic solitude.
Chastised by his mother for being homosexual and then rejected by two men he loved, he settled into a life of other pleasures that included weight lifting, motor cycle riding, swimming, hallucinogenics, and to their very great luck a wide ranging curiosity for working with the people who were his patients. After decades of celibacy, he fell in love at the age of 77. That this amazing soul was only loved and fully seen in the final decade of his life had me in tears as I drove through the green of southwestern Wisconsin with its deep cut-aways of limestone — a dissection of the complexity of the earth that we so easily forget.
Sacks had much success but he hardly had an easy life. As a kid, he and a brother were sent north from London during the Blitzkrieg where they went hungry and were abused by a teacher. He suffers from “face blindness” and acute shyness. Melanoma in one eye nine years ago is the root cause of his current cancer. For me, the lesson in knowing more about Sacks and the dearth of intimacy he had in his life is appreciating how he gave so completely from his heart despite his heart being so unmet. That he gave at all, much less so prodigiously in the form of writing, intellectual curiosity, and doctoring, is a testament to what lives in us despite deep wounds. Move forward – heal thyself – and give. That’s why we’re here.