Book Review of GRATITUDE by Dr. Oliver Sacks


Reading  Dr. Sacks’ farewell book with its mournful black cover was like going through a typical day on the job as a hospice chaplain. Just like my patients, this famous author, well-known for his medical narratives such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales lists his regrets, his triumphs, his hopes, and his efforts to make sense of the life that he had led. In a word, this book is about how he dealt with his approaching end. Many of us can relate to his regrets, which included wasting time, being shy, and not traveling more. He also hoped to love and work as long as possible; again, much as the average person might yearn for in this circumstance. He also mentioned his regret at not having learned a second language.

Finding out what he had to say about his own medical narrative may interest those who almost never hear about or think about what it means to review one’s life as death nears, but for me I initially found that very predictable. Nevertheless, because he expresses it so eloquently,  even as a jaded clinician, I became more and more captivated by his life review. More than that, reading this little book became a ritual means for me to say goodbye to this spectacular and compassionate doctor. For example he explains, “[As I get older] I begin to feel not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective…One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts…One is more conscience of transience, and perhaps, of beauty….One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”

The book was engrossing in so many other respects as well. Like his other works, he offers a distinctive view that makes it a privilege to saunter among his words. Who else would link the number assigned to each element in the periodic table with one’s age? He opens his essay entitled “Gratitude” by saying, “Mercury is element number 80….on Tuesday I will be 80 myself.”  He goes on to say that  when he was eleven years old that instead of referring to his age, he explained, “I could say ‘I am sodium.’”  (Sodium is the eleventh element). Such an association alone should be enough to entice the scientifically minded and the intellectually curious to get this book.

It is poignant to read that his defense mechanism for dealing with loss was to “turn to the nonhuman.” It saddened me to learn that when he was sent away to a boarding school, “numbers became my friends.”And that “the elements and the periodic table became my companions.”

The last chapter is entitled “Sabbath.” Here he mentions his Orthodox upbringing, and his growing indifference to the practice of Judaism and finally his rupture with it when his mother utterly rejected him when she found out he was gay. Much later in life, he was introduced to positive experiences of the Sabbath and found he could enjoy its peace not only on the seventh day of each week, but on the “seventh” day of his life as well.
The act itself of perusing the book is a sort of Sabbath. It causes the reader to reflect, to pause, and to savor existence. “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

This article was first printed in pallimed.org on March 20, 2017 and is reprinted here with their kind permission. the link is:
http://www.pallimed.org/2017/03/book-review-gratitude-by-dr-oliver-sacks.html

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Book Review: “The Death Class” by Erika Hayasaki (Simon & Schuster, January 2014)

It’s not that I “couldn’t put the book down,” I had to put it down. This is in no way a thumbs-down review for this courageous and revealing book, but rather a reflection on my own sensitivity to emotionally upsetting material. (I could not bear to watch the movie Sophie’s Choice for example, about a Nazi who made a mother choose which of her two children he would kill.) Erika Hayasaki observed a college death-awareness class, one of thousands now given across the country. Dr. Norma Bowe, a registered nurse who was the instructor, only agreed to let Erika write about her “Death in Perspective” class if she became a student. Students did things like keep journals and go on field trips to places like cemeteries and hospices. Speaking of cemeteries, Hayasaki, as she often does, uses felicitous phrasing, saying that cemeteries are “the overlooked, underused classrooms beneath our feet.”

A journalist, Erika Hayasaki yearned to “try to explain and interpret the world and its stories. But death’s mercilessness and meaning, I could not figure out.” Her first story as a budding journalist was a detailed obituary in her high school newspaper about the violent death of one of her best friends. This gave her something in common with many of the students in Dr. Bowe’s class. Like her, many of these students had witnessed or been the objects of abuse and violence. Moreover, Hayasaki informs us that about 25% of students in death education classes are there to deal with bereavement, and a full half of the students have had suicidal thoughts, with 10% having attempted to translate these thoughts into action. Most of the book is about these students’ personal lives.

My blog readers may wonder why I, who can sit with people facing the end and handle all their questions, and who can write about issues like pulling the plug, found the book so upsetting. Naturally I am all for death education classes and I have attended Death Café meetings and indeed wrote a book of anecdotes about my hospice patients. As much as my heart aches for the suffering of the author, the class instructor and the students, and as much as I deeply admire how Dr. Bowe gave hope and meaning to her students, I could not take the relentless detail page after page of the abuse and violence they suffered. For me, exposure to this causes me suffering secondhand. Possibly I am more sensitive to this than most readers, due to my own emotional deprivations in my past, and so the average reader may find “The Death Class” gripping and redemptive. Assuredly it adroitly takes the reader “right there” into the lives of the students, instructor and author.

Reading this book made me think about how Hayasaki and I serve the death awareness movement differently. Someone told me that my approach to this subject is “soft and gentle.” I think that sums up my angle: some people are extremely ambivalent about touching this topic at all, and so I write about more run-of-the-mill people and situations. I talk of such people as they live in the moment with death serving as a blurred backdrop. Hayasaki talks of people who have had to deal with death as a constant theme, and who have had to work so much harder to get their fair share of feeling alive.

Discovering how Dr. Bowe was the catalyst for such affirmation of life is one of the chief values of The Death Class. If you are curious about how people can surmount the most extreme circumstances to find fulfillment, you will want to read this book.