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.

21 Comments on “Oliver Sacks and Public Individuals at the Close”

  1. Thank you for posting; this is a beautiful reflection from an incredible man. These passages in particular stuck out:

    “There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

    This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.”

  2. A while back I wrote a posthumous blog post in case I get hit by a car. I’ve set it to appear on New Year’s Day and then re-set it for next year’s every time I reach that date.

    I figure if Blogger has that potential I may as well use it.

  3. I have been a fan of Dr. Sacks for years. His gift is making it almost possible to imagine a way of being that you really can’t without actually experiencing it (blindness, autism, deafness, etc.)

    I am so sorry to hear he is dying, and hope for a peaceful journey for him, having lost my brother at far too young an age from melanoma. “…but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.” This statement brought tears to my eyes.

    The first book of his that I read was “Seeing Voices.” I was fascinated as I am nearly deaf in the speech frequencies, but only moderately hard-of-hearing in low and high frequencies, so my hearing loss is often not readily apparent. One of my students saw the book on my desk and asked about it. I explained that I didn’t hear voices and he responded “Well, that’s a good thing, right?” Speech! I don’t hear speech! What people say! Real people!

  4. A strange and wonderful man from what I recall of his readings at the bookstore. Always distressing to learn of someone’s impending departure (the reminder that never loses its ‘spark’). Not sure how I would deal with it too. For the most part I’m partial to not knowing, but will take what I get. Thinking of mortality on a daily basis (meditation-wise) seems to bring a balance to it, but I’ll be better able to confirm when that day comes.

  5. Yes, I read it in this morning’s Times. A beautiful piece by a true Epicurean, and one of my favorite authors. As a chemist, I was particularly delighted by Uncle Tungsten, which tracks with my (non-English) childhood pretty well. But I’ve liked all of his books that I’ve read.

  6. Good for him, he’s handling this with remarkable grace, but bummer: he’s one of my favourite writers. I have all his books.

  7. Speaking of getting the last word in, everybody knows Maurice Sendak’s final Fresh Air interview, right? It’s been made into animations and all sorts of things.

    And it will never not make me cry, and also feel better about being alive.

  8. I can recommend Christopher Hitchens’s book “Mortality” which he wrote during his last months, when he knew he was dying. I’d heard of Hitchens but never read any of his writing before (or got caught up in the love him/hate him stuff I had also heard about–and could never remember which side I was “supposed” to be on). Coming to “Mortality” with no preconceptions, I found it absorbing. I have maybe a bit of a bias because the last two brief conversations I had with a friend before his own death (in an accident, sudden and entirely unexpected) were about “Mortality,” which he enthusiastically recommended. I put the book on reserve at the library after the first of these conversations but it did not come to me until several weeks after my friend’s death, so I was never able to discuss it with him. I wish I could have, because I liked it as much as he had.

  9. Sacks is an astounding writer and a profoundly thoughtful and compassionate human being. He’s the kind of doctor I’d want treating me, and the kind of writer I can only aspire to be. I hope his last days are good ones.

  10. @Nefer – I assume he thought you were refering to hearing voices in the sense of auditory hallucinations, in which case it is indeed good not to hear them.

  11. John: Thank you for bringing this deeply human, and humanist, piece to my attention. It’s quite overpowering.

  12. Incidentally, according to Sacks’s own book Hallucinations, hearing voices is not terribly rare and not necessarily a sign of pathology.

  13. I’m in the middle of his “Musicophilia” right now. It doesn’t surprise me to see him make a thoughtful and graceful exit. Peace be with him and his loved ones.

  14. Ah, damn. I hadn’t heard yet. I only know him through his many wonderful books and some great in depth TV interviews he took part in for a series of Dutch programmes. As far as you can judge these things from this kind of distance, a real mensch.

    My mother died last year and she – and we as a family – had a one month grace period in which everyone could say what they felt needed saying, be with each other and share other moments with old friends at her bedside. It was, as they say, a good death, as far as any painful goodbye can ever really qualify as such.
    It made me think about how I would want to go one day. If possible, yes, give me a month to pack my stuff, so to speak.

    I’m glad I’m not a public figure but I guess the basics are pretty much the same for all of us. I appreciate that as a public figure you would probably like to have a director’s role in saying your public farewells. How much or how little time & effort you’d care to spend on that part of saying goodbye to life will vary from person to person of course.

    I am now thinking of Iain Banks. Damn, too many good folks dying.

  15. Dear John,

    I’d want to know. If there were a magic machine that would tell me exactly when I was going to die, I’d sign up for it tomorrow. Wouldn’t matter if the answer were four days (extremely unlikely) or four decades (slightly less extremely unlikely). I’d still want to know.

    (Important advance-trigger-alert to readers, before I go any further. This is entirely descriptive of my thought processes and preferences. It is absolutely not in any way prescriptive. If what I say violently or even mildly conflicts with your beliefs and preferences, this is not me saying you are a bad person. You get to do the calculus for yourself, any way you want. It’s not a debate, it’s not an argument, it’s the ultimate personal decision.)

    As someone who does have a public presence at least as large as their private one (nowhere on the scale of yours or Oliver’s, but still…) I thought about this and decided I would handle it much as Oliver did, although most certainly not as thoughtfully nor eloquently.

    For a time I was conflicted on what I would do. For whatever span I had left in this particular mortal coil, I’d want to use and enjoy it to the best of my ability. A year (or month or decade) long pity-party would not be conducive to such enjoyment. Which was an argument for not telling people and acting like everything was normal until it became obvious it wasn’t.

    Then I started thinking about other people, the quadruple-handful of lovers and most intimate friends. Am I not going to tell them, inform them of the most singularly important thing that’s going to happen to our mutual relationship, give them no chance to prepare for it in however a fashion they wish to, simply because I want have a good time? Yeah, it’s my death and I get to decide how to have it, but that’s awfully damned inconsiderate and insensitive towards people I claim to love and care about. Nope, can’t do that; by my personal code that makes me a pretty shitty lover/friend. (Trigger alert––remember what I said: descriptive, not prescriptive)

    So, what then? Do I not tell the world? A score of people know this huge secret about me. Mind you, they’re all people with whom I have trusted secrets in the past and they will keep secrets. But I’m telling them something which is almost as emotionally fraught for them as for me or maybe more so (since I *think* I am unusually sanguine about dying––we’ll see how I feel when push comes to shove**). If I tell them to keep it secret, they’ve got no one to process it with, to support them or console them or counsel them on how to deal. That would be a hard burden for me to put on anybody, much less someone I purport to care deeply about.

    I could tell them to be discrete and not tell it to anybody they didn’t really need to. And, when all was said and done, that’d mean 50-100 people would know my secret. Really, how likely is it that it will then stay secret for any length of time?

    The inevitable conclusion of this reasoning, for me, is that I go the Oliver Sachs’ route and simply do my best to avoid it degenerating into a pity party.

    [** okay, not 100% true. Alzheimer’s scares the fucking shit out of me. On a visceral level of terror that goes far beyond how utterly awful the disease is. I mean, there’s rational terror and then there’s this beyond-phobic terror. I need to come to terms with that, just in case.]

    pax \ Ctein
    [ Please excuse any word-salad. MacSpeech in training! ]
    — Ctein’s Online Gallery http://ctein.com
    — Digital Restorations http://photo-repair.com

  16. I’ve been in some… unusual… scenarios where I knew there was some nontrivial chance that I might be dead in less than a minute or so. I’ve also had to wait for days to get diagnosis results that might be in the “bad news” category.

    All the different emotional reactions I had would point to the notion that I am not ready to die. I’m clearly in the Roy “I want more life, fucker” Batty stage of things yet. I don’t know what I would do if given a “N months to live” scenario.

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