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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Touch-Tone A Prayer

As I entered the modest room, about a dozen friends and family were awkwardly standing all around the patient with his hospital bed as the hypnotic centerpiece. Xavier (pseudonym) could no longer register their existence, and they in turn felt disconnected from each other. Xavier’s daughter had asked for a chaplain and the spontaneous prayer I offered melted away some of the tension. But when I was done no conversation with me ensued, so to conclude the visit graciously, I gave them one of my business cards and explained that the cellphone number listed is my personal one for them to call as needed.

During my time off the next day, the daughter called and asked if I could come pray again. Guess I supplied a high-quality prayer since she wanted seconds. She declared, “There’s only my husband and me this time with Xavier, so it’s more peaceful now and we can concentrate better.” After I told her I was not in the facility that day, I broached the idea of imparting a prayer over the phone. I worried a little that she would think that was a pale substitute, but the power of the word was to prevail. “I’ll put on my loudspeaker and we’ll listen,” she enthused. Thank goodness she requested Psalm 23, because that was about the only Psalm I had in instant reach. After I recited it, she hesitantly asked about sharing a prayer of her own, which of course I urged her to do as I listened. Her prayer was about feeling God’s strength and praying for Xavier’s peaceful passing. I then intuited that I should follow that by softly singing the spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine.”

The couple murmured their appreciation, and the most moving call of the month was at an end.

The Rosary And The Rabbi

It was not a promising start. I had left a voicemail in Spanish with a new patient on hospice and her family. The patient’s daughter sent me a text message in Spanish saying I could visit whenever I wished. I called back, and after I said in my obviously flawed Spanish who I was and that I could come now, she said, “I don’t understand English.” Yikes. Was my Spanish all that bad?

But when I replied that I was speaking in Spanish to her, she giggled and the conversation at last had a future, however fragile it might be. So I considered it a victorious leap past the communication barrier when she agreed that I could come over right away.

The patient, who I will call Margarita, was seated on the couch, and her daughter Gabriela sat next to her as she put my Spanish comprehension to the test with a complex story of woe. A couple of other family members were present as well. I then turned to her mother, who had not said anything or even looked at me much during this lament. Because Gabriela mentioned that Margarita went to Spanish Mass at a church around the corner, I asked her mother if she would like a prayer. It just so happens I come prepared with prayers written in Spanish for such visits, including a prayer for caregivers (which caregivers sometimes scan into their phones because they like it so much), and the prayer for the Rosary. Margarita found it worthwhile to tune in to me and take the energy to communicate since I brought out the magic word Rosary as one of the prayers I had on hand. At my request, the family found a set of white rosary beads for her to hold.

I felt comfortable enough saying the words themselves of this prayer in these circumstances, but as a rabbi I could not make the sign of the Cross or say “amen,” so I felt I first had to let on that  I was not Catholic, but not only that, I was–were they ready for this?– Jewish. This only added further spice to the spectacle of a gringa like me with fractured Spanish reciting a prayer of utmost sanctity alien to her own beliefs. But they were alright with this, grateful for a spiritual presence that could cut through their linguistic isolation at this time of acute need. As I started to say the words, “En el nombre del Padre, del Hijo, y del Espiritu Santo…” I saw that Margarita could say much of the Rosary by herself by heart. I only had to resume here and there to prompt her along. She teared up at the emotion of expressing this prayer, and I saw the others brushing off their own tears. And as I was engaged with this task, I thought about how odd and how glorious it was that we could transcend language and religion and nationality and race to provide this salvation of release and of God’s comforting closeness.