I fell in love with neurologist Oliver Sacks’ writing decades ago, after reading The Man Who Mistook His Wife for A Hat, a collection of case histories of patients with bizarre brain deficits or excesses, and I’ve been a fan ever since. I’m interested in medicine and Sacks is a wonderful wordsmith, but his humanism and empathy are what make his writing so compelling and his patients so lucky. Now 81, Sacks recently learned that he has less than a year to live. His essay about this is another astonishingy lucid, even joyous, piece of writing, which brought to mind a piece he wrote 18 months earlier called “The Joy of Old Age Age. (No kidding.)” It concludes with this paragraph:
My father, who lived to 94, often said that the 80s had been one of the most enjoyable decades of his life. He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective. One has had a long experience of life, not only one’s own life, but others’, too. One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts, revolutions and wars, great achievements and deep ambiguities, too. One has seen grand theories rise, only to be toppled by stubborn facts. One is more conscious of transience and, perhaps, of beauty. At 80, one can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age. I can imagine, feel in my bones, what a century is like, which I could not do when I was 40 or 60. I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.
I am looking forward to being 80.
How sad to be deprived of more of Oliver Sacks’ excellent company, as well as his further reflections on growing very old, and what a life well lived.