Review: Oliver Sacks' extraordinary life ends with 'Gratitude'

Published Nov. 18, 2015

Not everyone can count his blessings on his deathbed. But Oliver Sacks could. His new, posthumously published essay collection is titled Gratitude.

Sacks, who died on Aug. 30 at age 82, was a neurologist, physician, professor and bestselling author of such books as Awakenings, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Musicophilia.

Late last year, he completed a memoir, On the Move: A Life. Weeks later, in January, he learned that a rare melanoma in his right eye, for which he had been successfully treated nine years before, had returned and metastasized to his liver. He knew he had only months to live, so he did what he had always done: He wrote.

In addition to writing books, Sacks was a prolific and skillful essayist. Gratitude collects four of his essays, one written before his illness and three written during it. Each one expresses his characteristic, unquenchable curiosity about the world around him, a thirst for experience and understanding that seems to have sustained him until the end.

The first, "Mercury," was written on the occasion of his 80th birthday — the title element being, of course, the 80th on the periodic table, one of his lifelong fascinations.

"Eighty! I can hardly believe it," he writes. "I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over."

He writes of regrets — it's a bit startling for a man of his accomplishments to note, "I am sorry I have wasted (and still waste) so much time" — and the physical and mental effects of aging, but essentially he is upbeat. Of his father, who lived to be 94, he writes, "He felt, as I begin to feel, not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective."

The second essay, "My Own Life," was published in the New York Times about a month after his diagnosis and triggered an outpouring of support from thousands of readers.

It's an unsentimental but touching announcement of his plight and his desire to handle it with "audacity, clarity, and plain speaking." He writes of a sudden sense of focus that has led him, among other things, to stop following the news.

"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 ones who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands."

The third essay, "My Periodic Table," returns not just to its title subject but to the joy Sacks takes in science and the physical universe, micro to macro, from a "thrilling" article on research into weighing the mass of neutrons and protons, all the way up to a vision of eternity and mortality under an "entire sky 'powdered with stars' (in Milton's words)."

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The last essay, "Sabbath," published two weeks before his death, delves into his past and personal life. He recounts his idyllic childhood in the Cricklewood neighborhood of London as part of a large and close-knit Jewish community in the years before World War II. He recalls vividly how his family's practice of Orthodox Judaism linked them profoundly to relatives and friends.

The war, he writes, dismantled that sense of community as thousands of British Jews emigrated to Israel, Canada, the United States and Australia. His own connection to his faith was broken when he was 18 and his father asked him whether he was a homosexual.

His father took his affirmative answer calmly, but Sacks' mother angrily called him "an abomination. I wish you had never been born."

He writes, "The matter was never mentioned again, but her harsh words made me hate religion's capacity for bigotry and cruelty."

But the essay brings him full circle. Decades later, long after his mother's death, he becomes friends with one of his cousins, Nobel Prize-winning economist Robert John Aumann, who is still a practicing Jew. During a family reunion of sorts in Israel, Sacks finds himself — and his lover, Billy Hayes — warmly welcomed to a Sabbath dinner. Less than a year later, Sacks would receive his diagnosis. As death approaches, he writes, "I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest."

For a full portrait of a most extraordinary man, pair Gratitude with On the Move, the remarkable, candid memoir published a few months before he died.

In "My Own Life," Sacks writes, "I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. ...

"Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure."

Readers can be grateful for his courage in sharing that adventure.

Contact Colette Bancroft at or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.