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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Words at the Starting Gate

When I talk with a person about his own death, especially when it is my own father, I feel like a race car driver having to make split-second decisions en route to the finish line.  Before letting my answer race out of my mouth,  I have to take in exactly what a person is saying and how they are bringing this subject up.  With my few seconds to answer, I have to consider how deeply they want to pursue the subject, why they are bringing it up, and what words and intonation I should use so I will not be evasive or inauthentic. I do not want to run out of gas or careen into a wall.

This time it was in fact my own father, so my emotions  came into play too before my brain gave me the all-ready signal. And now, as I write about it, I am especially self-conscious about my choice of words knowing that he, one of my blog followers, may be reading this along with everyone else who has alighted on this post.(Never fear, I did get his permission.)

Earlier in the day, my 92-year-old dad and I had covered our usual subjects, such as what good books to read, how he maintains his good health working out at the gym and eating the right foods, and what new activities I have engaged in. As I hung up, I remembered he had said something about feeling “so-so” and I wondered vaguely why he said that.

As if in response to my picking up on that, he rang again and broached the subject very cautiously by saying, “I think a lot about my age these days, but I don’t know if I should discuss this with my own daughter, especially because you are a chaplain.” I thought how ironic. It’s not like he was exploiting my expertise. But that was what he thought, because he went on, “You know, I don’t want to be like a person at a party who meets a doctor and then asks him about this or that pain you have.”

“Gosh no, not at all Dad.” Funny (but understandable) how the people we most should be sharing our thoughts about death with are the ones we most hesitate to do so with. It is one thing to attend a Death Cafe or peek at the dark humor Tweets of funeral directors, quite another to deal with the emotionally-laden prospect of a loved one’s death, whether imminent or remote. I felt like adding, “if not with your children, with who then?” Instead, I waited, which gave me time to think about what he had said about death in the past, such as that he is not afraid of it.

He continued, “I wonder when it is going to hit me. I wonder how it will happen.” I think to myself, I sometimes wonder the same thing. I also wonder whether I will die before or after my husband, whether before or after my brother.

“What can I do about it? Should I just not think about it?” Dad asked. Just to see if he had changed his view,I asked him if he was afraid. “I’m not afraid. It’s just like going to sleep, only for a really long time, that’s all. But I like being here and want to stay.”

At first I thought, what can I say to his question? It’s such an unanswerable one. And although what I said may not seem novel to most if not all of my readers, the fact that it was between a father and daughter, and that we were in a genuine moment, brought our cars in tandem: “Live in the moment, Dad.” He said that was a good answer and a great way to conclude that phone call. I celebrate how he and I were living completely in the moment during that conversation. Dad, may there be many more such moments for you before you cruise past the ultimate finish line.