I bought this book back in 2015 when it first came out, but I knew I wasn’t going to read it then. I wanted to save it for a time when I knew it would matter most. When I needed it most. I do this sometimes – buy a book with the intent to save it for a specific time. I’m not sure why. I’m an avid reader, but more than that, I’m a collector of books. I have bookcases stacked to the ceiling with books of all shapes, sizes, and subjects. My shelves are so overloaded now with paper treasures that I reserve my future book purchases for only the most coveted of publications. The rest of my book shopping, I do as ebooks. Between these two sources, I’d be afraid to calculate how many books I own. I think I would be even more afraid to calculate how many I have actually read out of all of those. I try to read them all, but the overwhelming truth is, that I would need to live many lifetimes to be able to make it through the growing collection.
This book, however, is one of my special prizes. I knew the moment this book was published that there would be the right time and place in my life to read it. I knew when I bought it, that at some point the words in this book would mean something to me so deeply. They would fill a place of need for me, of longing really. I knew that when the time was right, I would hunger and this book would be the food for my soul. I knew this because I have been touched by this author before. I idolize this author. I believe in the words he writes because I get him. I understand him in the very core of who I am. This author, a man, a physician, and professor of neurology turned best-selling author and all around genius – Oliver Sacks, is the closest person to a hero I have ever had in my life. And while I have read and absorbed his other writings, I am only now about to read this one. The time has come to read this book. It comes on the back of my prognosis, as I am preparing to transverse this world into the next. It serves me at this point in my earthly journey where I need to be reminded of the meaning of life. I need to be reminded of why I am lucky to have had the time I did. Why, even though I’d like it, I don’t need more time, because short or long, I’ve lived a good life. I am lucky. I am grateful.
I have revered this man for a long time. I was around 11 years old when I saw the movie Awakenings for the first time, a story (loosely) based on Dr. Sack’s book, which is based on his life. This movie sparked an admiration within me for the real-life person behind the memoirs. The inspiration having come on that day is one of the few positive things I can attribute to my mother from my childhood. My mom, a medical professional – a fellow brain scientist, sat her pack of boys down around the TV and told us to watch this movie.
At the time, I didn’t know that this movie would become an influencing guide in my life. I couldn’t have known how many times I would think of this movie as I transitioned through my life – as I learned to make adult decisions about who and what I wanted to become. I didn’t know at that moment I would want to become a man just like the one in the movie. How could I have known? I was just a boy. I thought I wanted to be an astronaut and a professional athlete. I didn’t know or understand that something, an idea, a subject, a person, etc., could be planted within you from a thing as simple as a movie. I didn’t know that this idea/subject/person if allowed to flourish, could become an ideal or a reference for which one would want to emulate the rest of their life. I didn’t know that someday, my childhood dreams would subside and instead be replaced with something real, yet born so long ago. That idea would come back to me, fully formed, true, and deep. What was planted as a boy became a desire and a new dream, it became tangible and achievable, it became the new and real me, replacing all else. That idea grew over years and years of reflection and introspection. I didn’t know it when I was 11 years old, but I came to learn that I would want to walk in this man’s shadow, or more so, that I could walk in this man’s shadow. In real decisions and life’s choices, I could take the image of that man, apply it to my own life and become something more and better. Because of a movie I watched so many years ago, I learned about a man of whom I would want to become and in that moment, without my knowing it a path for the rest of my life was being laid forth in front of me.
The reverence for which I held for Dr. Sacks would become the very driving force behind my own career choices. I wanted to know, understand, and be as passionate about the people in my own life, and career as he was for his own patients. At the time, I didn’t even know who the real man was, I knew him only by his fictional movie title. It would be much later that I learned his true identity, yet, in all that time, I was growing up in the footsteps of a real person that I only had a vague Hollywood picture of. I have to thank my mother for this, it was her after all that made me watch the movie. I don’t thank my mother for much, but this is one thing I will always be glad she did for me.
A stern, cold, often emotionally manipulative, high achieving A-type, my mother wanted her boys to be smart and successful. It was common in our house growing up to be coerced into hard-fought debates that would last hours on end, “An exercise in shaping our minds,” she would call it. The expectations being that the youngest amongst us could argue alongside the eldest, prove our case and point and come out the other end with some fodder to chew on from the other point of view. Her other pastimes included the habit of assigning us books to read or movies to watch where the title character, often a brilliant or resourceful male, would overcome adversity by sheer creative genius, and then drill us on what lessons we gleaned from the parable. These literary and film discussions and the frequent family debates were meant to be lessons on holding ones own in an intelligent world but they often left me in frustrated tears as a child. Discouraged with her chiding me for the fact that I didn’t understand the themes well enough or that I didn’t get the message clearly, or even that I wasn’t inspired enough by the missions of the protagonist, I was often left thinking that I wasn’t good, or smart enough.
This movie, and the way that Dr. Sack’s character (Named Dr. Sayer in the film) cared for and advocated for his patients gave me a whole new glimpse at medical professionals. My experiences with doctors had rarely been positive until that point. I’d been a patient my whole life, poked and prodded, often scared of the people who were working so hard to save me. From them, I would turn to my mother, a doctor of another kind, who never provided a soft spot to fall. The “have a stiff upper lip” expectation she had of her children left me with a bad taste in my mouth about what doctors were actually supposed to be like. For the first time, while watching this movie, I saw a different side to the story. I saw a doctor fighting for and caring for his patients. I knew that’s the type of person I wanted to be. It is what inspired me to join the medical field, the field for which I had previously had such an aversion to. I knew that I could be a better advocate for my patients than anyone had ever been for me. I learned later, when I wasn’t seeing things through a child’s lens that my doctors were great people who cared a lot for me and fought hard for me, it was just hard not to be afraid of the monsters when I was such a fragile little boy.
In the years since I found out the true identity of the fictional doctor of the movie, (Dr. Oliver Sacks), I spent time learning as much as I could about him. I’ve read his autobiographies, listened to interviews, searched for articles, and generally just tried to learn as much about, and from, him as possible. I feel that I have been a better person and a better professional, advocate, and friend because of his influence. He fascinates me and in some ways, he reminds me of myself. He talks of being afflicted by extreme shyness and characterizes that as a disease that impacted his ability to form relationships in his life. I get this implicitly. It makes sense to me. I look at his life somewhat as a roadmap for who I want to be.
In August 2015, Sacks lost his battle with cancer, something I am now facing as well. After finding out his diagnosis was terminal in December 2014, he made an announcement in a February 2015 New York Times op-ed piece and estimated his remaining time in “months”. He expressed his intent to “live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can”. He added: “I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.”1
In his words from the New York Times piece, I knew that the roadmap I have been following that has been so intrinsically linked to his life, also applies to my death, in the same ways that it applied to his own death. I want to meet my death with as much integrity and strength as he did. In short, I want to be the hero that he has been to me. I want to die in his footsteps. I want to be better and do better with the time I have left because of his inspiration. I want to thank him, my hero, Dr. Oliver Sacks, for giving me courage and grace under fire to live, really live, until the moment I die. I will not waste this courage you have inspired me to have.
In this life and death, although I never had the pleasure to know or meet you, I hope that when my time comes, had you have known me, you could have been as proud of me as I have been of you. I thank you for making me who I am, or perhaps, a better version of who I am. In your eyes, I have learned this about myself. I don’t believe that I am fighting death, I believe that I am living life. Shorter than I’d like – yes, but in the time I have left, I too will live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.
Sacks, Oliver (19 February 2015). “My Own Life: Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer”. The New York Times. Retrieved 19 February 2015.