Oliver Sacks and Public Individuals at the Close

Oliver Sacks has terminal cancer and has decided to say goodbye to the public. It’s here, in the New York Times, and it’s both nicely done and something that’s being shared widely in my online social circle. Sacks seems, if not sanguine about the event, at least contented with the path of his life to date. Although it must be recognized that we’re seeing an intentionally composed piece of work, which may or may not reflect Sack’s actual frame of mind at the news, to the public, at least, he’s leaving with some uncommon grace.

And I would imagine that for someone like Sacks, who is a public figure, this is as positive a thing as can be under the circumstances. Public figures are, for better or worse, different than almost everyone else; they are characters in lives beyond their own circle of family and friends, and the narratives of their lives are at least partially offered up by others. When one of them dies suddenly and unexpectedly, the last word on their lives is usually wholly from others — friends and family, and then a host of commentators, who may or may not have been connected with that person’s life at all.

Depending on who you are as a person, having certain foreknoweldge that your life is quantifably finite — that you have only months or weeks to live — may not be a thing you want. But if it is a thing you deal with, if you are public individual, you have a chance to make your own public exit, and to leave on the terms you set. You won’t be the only one having a last word on your life (people will still talk about you after you are dead), but they and everyone else will factor in how you chose to walk off the public stage. And for many people who are in that position, I think that might be a comforting thought.

And what would I want? I don’t know how well I would handle knowing I was going to die sooner than later — I still like this place and the people in it, and I wouldn’t want to leave this party yet — but I suppose if I had to choose I wouldn’t mind knowing at least a little in advance. I think I would want to have some parting thoughts before I went, and I would like to be able to manage my public departure before I focused on spending time with family and those I loved. I guess I won’t really know until and unless it happens. Like I said, I’d be happy to have to wait a few more decades before having to think about it seriously.

But I am glad that Oliver Sacks, at least, is getting to shape his own moment. I hope he spends his remaining time exactly as he wants. I suspect he will.