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Embracing what we might not choose

eight colorful birthday candles with flame on blackLife is full of things most of us don’t ask for – like old age, if we are lucky enough to get it, and dying.

They’re both hard to talk about (not your best party openers) so thank goodness that someone as articulate as the late, great neurologist, Dr. Oliver Sacks, did not shy away from writing about them in two Op-ed pieces for the New York Times.

Dr. Sacks had a great mind. Having lived a life of passionate observation, with an intellect that spanned science, medicine, travel and the humanities, he brought a world of inquiry to life through his writing.

Last February, he wrote an op-ed piece for the New York Times when he learned he had terminal cancer. Do read it in its entirety – it’s a short, beautiful, unsentimental yet uplifting piece.  He began by acknowledging:

A MONTH ago, I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out —“

Dr. Sacks died on August 30th, while I was still reading the last chapter of his brilliant memoir, On the Move.

To celebrate his life, I watched the movie Awakenings last weekend (great performances by Robin Williams and Robert de Niro), based on the work he did in the ’60’s with patients suffering from encephalitis lethargica.

Using the drug L-dopa, Sacks was able to bring his almost catatonic patients “back to life” only to watch them slowly slip back into their mostly vacant, unresponsive states as the drug’s effects receded. This outcome, while tragic, still moved the hospital system to see how cast-off shells of patients could house human beings worthy of respect and dignity.

It’s the dignity one feels as he writes about his own views on aging.

In his New York Times Op-ed piece The Joy of Old Age. (No kidding), he wrote:

“Eighty! I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.… I was always the youngest boy in my class at high school. I have retained this feeling of being the youngest, even though now I am almost the oldest person I know…

At nearly 80, with a scattering of medical and surgical problems, none disabling, I feel glad to be alive — “I’m glad I’m not dead!” sometimes bursts out of me when the weather is perfect…

I am grateful that I have experienced many things — some wonderful, some horrible — and that I have been able to write a dozen books, to receive innumerable letters from friends, colleagues and readers, and to enjoy what Nathaniel Hawthorne called ‘an intercourse with the world’…

I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time; I am sorry to be as agonizingly shy at 80 as I was at 20; I am sorry that I speak no languages but my mother tongue and that I have not traveled or experienced other cultures as widely as I should have done.

I feel I should be trying to complete my life, whatever “completing a life” means

At 80, the specter of dementia or stroke looms. A third of one’s contemporaries are dead, and many more, with profound mental or physical damage, are trapped in a tragic and minimal existence. At 80 the marks of decay are all too visible.

One’s reactions are a little slower, names more frequently elude one, and one’s energies must be husbanded, but even so, one may often feel full of energy and life and not at all “old.” Perhaps, with luck, I will make it, more or less intact, for another few years and be granted the liberty to continue to love and work, the two most important things, Freud insisted, in life…

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.”

He found the magic of living within a complicated reality.

My husband turns 80 in December. Do I like the sound of that number? Not at all.

Do I hope that we can embrace it with the robust passion Oliver Sacks brought to his life?


One Response

  1. Sally, this post is especially touching for me. At 85 I’ve been blessed in many of the ways so gracefully described by Dr. Sachs.

    I look forward to a spacious synergy-seeking reconnection whenever that works best for you.



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