Oliver Sacks on the Sabbath—and his death

August 16, 2015 • 10:15 am

As most of you know, Oliver Sacks is in the process of dying. His metastatic cancer began in his eye, and then spread to his liver and now to other places. He doesn’t have long to live, and has documented his decline, and his thoughts on impending mortality, in three pieces in the New York Times. I posted on the first one in February, and another,called “”My periodic table,” appeared in February. In that one he matched the latter years of his life with the corresponding number of a chemical element in the periodic table. An excerpt:

I started a new sort of treatment — immunotherapy — last week. It is not without its hazards, but I hope it will give me a few more good months. But before beginning this, I wanted to have a little fun: a trip to North Carolina to see the wonderful lemur research center at Duke University. Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature. [JAC: My colleague Anne Yoder is director of that Center and showed him around. Her post on the Duke Lemur Center Facebook page says this: “It was such an amazing 24 hours. He is every bit as kind, generous, and full of wonder as you could imagine.”]

. . . Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having “83” around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feeling for bismuth.

I almost certainly will not see my polonium (84th) birthday, nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity. But then, at the other end of my table — my periodic table — I have a beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood, and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.

Today’s Times has a further installment, “Sabbath,” which shows how Sacks, and some other secular Jews, still hang onto old religious rituals. (He’s an atheist.) I don’t adhere at all to religious ritual—although I used to have a mezuzah on my lintel—but it’s fascinating to see what one one clings to at the end of life. I briefly thought that Sacks was being solipsistic, parading his illness before the public, but I instantly realized that he’s doing exactly what Hitchens was doing at the end of his life: these men are writers, and their first response to nearly everything is to put it into words for others. Perhaps that helps bring coherence to their thoughts, or even provides some solace, but what it certainly does do is give us unique insights about what it’s like to die. It’s sad, and it’s wrenching, but, as Bonnie Raitt said, it’s what we all go through.

An excerpt from “Sabbath”:

In December 2014, I completed my memoir, “On the Move,” and gave the manuscript to my publisher, not dreaming that days later I would learn I had metastatic cancer, coming from the melanoma I had in my eye nine years earlier. I am glad I was able to complete my memoir without knowing this, and that I had been able, for the first time in my life, to make a full and frank declaration of my sexuality, facing the world openly, with no more guilty secrets locked up inside me.

In February, I felt I had to be equally open about my cancer — and facing death. I was, in fact, in the hospital when my essay on this, “My Own Life,” was published in this newspaper. In July I wrote another piece for the paper, “My Periodic Table,” in which the physical cosmos, and the elements I loved, took on lives of their own.

And now, weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.

That’s so sad, and so eloquent. Goodbye, Oliver. You made the world a better place—by helping others who were troubled and by giving us glimpses into not only their minds, but yours.


29 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks on the Sabbath—and his death

  1. What an intelligent and wise man. It is sad to have to see him leaving us, like a slow train pulling out of the station.

  2. That was just wonderful. I was agog reading how he connects the atomic number of elements with critical years of his life. What a beautiful mind.

  3. Some might be a bit confused by his reference to the periodic table of elements as Sacks is so well known for his fascinating books on human neuroscience, but if you read, “Uncle Tungsten”, his book about his early life, you’ll see that he was somewhat of a, “polymath” growing up and could just as well have gone on to become a talented chemist.

  4. “…nor would I want any polonium around, with its intense, murderous radioactivity.”

    All that sanctimonious “to thine own self be true” and “neither a borrower or lender be” stuff, too.

    Oliver Sacks, on the other hand, is an everflowing font of inspiration.

    1. Well, now, remember that when those platitudes were coined they must have had extraordinary and profound effects. Not to minimize Sax at all. Each concept is relevant to it’s own time and place.

      1. I think Ken was referring to Polonius, of whom Wikipedia says in the second line of their article, “Generally regarded as wrong in every judgement he makes…”


  5. I hope I will meet my own demise with the same grace, insight and courage as Dr. Sacks: a true inspiration.

    1. I hope my demise catches me unaware and I remain so throughout.

      Otherwise, I share your eloquent sentiment fully.

  6. Oliver Sacks is one of my favorite authors. He relates to everything with the inquisitive joy of a child and the perceptive intelligence and clear writing style of an exceptionally mature, gifted being. He has kept journals his whole life. I think his writing primarily is aimed at explaining and refining his thoughts for himself but I’m grateful he has shared them with us. I hope he has designated a favorite university or other institution to receive and safeguard his journals, tapes and books, as they are a treasure for humankind.

    May Dr. Sacks continue to think, communicate and write as long as he can and wants to. May he peacefully depart knowing he’s added more value to the world than most, and that he can rest now. His unique personality and intellect
    will be gone but his writing remains for us. And, his molecules will transform into something new,to last as long as the universe exists.

  7. I hope when my time arrives I am able to face it with the dignity of Sacks and Hitchens. Talk about lives well lived.

    1. I think the same. I hope I can face the end with this sort of dignity and aplomb.

      I suppose we can only try now to live in such a way that we can look back with mostly small regrets that are quickly driven out by wonderful memories of family and friends.

  8. > Perhaps that helps bring coherence to their thoughts, or even provides some solace, but what it certainly does do is give us unique insights about what it’s like to die.

    Oliver Sacks has explicitly stated that he writes to clarify and cohere his thoughts for himself. Here is a brief overview of his thoughts on writing:


    To quote Sacks from his autobiography, as excerpted at the above link:

    “I started keeping journals when I was fourteen and at last count had nearly a thousand. They come in all shapes and sizes, from little pocket ones which I carry around with me to enormous tomes. I always keep a notebook by my bedside, for dreams as well as nighttime thoughts, and I try to have one by the swimming pool or the lakeside or the seashore; swimming too is very productive of thoughts which I must write, especially if they present themselves, as they sometimes do, in the form of whole sentences or paragraphs…

    But for the most part, I rarely look at the journals I have kept for the greater part of a lifetime. The act of writing is itself enough; it serves to clarify my thoughts and feelings. The act of writing is an integral part of my mental life; ideas emerge, are shaped, in the act of writing.

    My journals are not written for others, nor do I usually look at them myself, but they are a special, indispensable form of talking to myself.”

    1. I would like to add that Oliver Sacks is as much a diarist as an expositor of medicine. His books read like edited versions of the personal journals of a remarkably curious and talented man of science.

    2. It occurs to me that the descriptions I’ve read of the process of thinking suggests that our minds are not very well structured for coherent thought. It’s more like a stream of consciousness encapsulating many contradictions. In order to think really clearly one might very well have to write things down. Writing forces the mind to revisit the random scrawl of thought and sort out the meat and meaning.

    1. I’ve wanted to get hold of some bismuth for decades since I heard that it is one of the easiest of metals to form macroscopic crystals.
      This image is of a “hopper” form of the crystals.

      1. My daughter got this one from a touristy semi-precious gem shop. There are Youtube videos showing how you can make your own crystals on the kitchen stove.

        1. Yes, I’ve seen metallic bismuth in many a mineral store. Silicon carbide is another popular synthetic.
          Oh, I see that silicon carbide is available for jewellery use. That’s interesting. More interesting than (cut) diamond.

  9. Thanks for sharing this. I will miss Dr. Sacks.

    I once wrote to him (about his book The Mind’s Eye) and received a hand-written note from him in return.

    I always treasured it. I will treasure it even more when he passes.

    Dr. Sacks, if you are reading this: Receiving that kind, grateful letter from you continues to move me to this day. As do your books, every one of them.

    Go to your rest contentedly.

  10. “I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life.”

    What an interesting comment on spirituality, a dissent from the notion that spirituality is important because it helps us face our end. It’s the life that counts.

  11. Incredible words. Ive never read his work but that instantly reminded me of HItchens’ Mortality.

    As far as keeping the old religious traditions alive, I find some traditions to be wonderful even when stripped of all supernatural nonsense. For example Christmas is a beautiful holiday, the warmth, the togetherness of family. This transcends any religion. Same for Shabbat.

    I was recently over at a religious friend’s house on Saturday and I cant express how nice it was to unplug for a few hours, to talk with friends and drink and laugh without turning the tv on or checking email. Its such an underrated tradition in the modern world.

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