August 30, 2015
Oliver Sacks died today. My older brother turned 40 yesterday. Rain interrupted our severe drought. The wind blew trees over. An important ex-boyfriend surfaced online and said hello from another continent. Friends announced engagements and pregnancies on Facebook. Today I decided for the one-hundredth time that I’m not cut out to be a single parent (and maybe not any kind of parent), that I can live without experiencing motherhood, that it’s too crazy to summon new life into existence. We’re here to love, I reminded myself, and love expands like gas to fill any container. It’s strange to be an extra person, but every once in a while you can help someone from that position.
In the early 1990s, I found The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat in my small town public library. Besides being titillated by the subject matter, I liked the soundness of the writing and also its kindness. Even then, in my early teens, I knew I wanted to write. Oliver Sacks showed me that non-fiction can be magical too, and that helped put my life on its spin.
I met Oliver Sacks 11 or 12 years ago, when I was in my mid-twenties. I was battered by a first wave of literary and romantic rejection, and was hiding out as a production assistant at a public radio station. I had just read Uncle Tungsten and still considered Sacks a writing role model. I kept him and Kate Edgar company in the green room before his on-air interview. I was supposed to be tending to his needs, but Kate was already fixing him his tea just the way he liked it. I was standing next to him at a counter when he started rummaging through his draw-string bag, looking for a business card to give me. He took items out one at a time, looked at each one as if he’d never seen it before, and then carefully set it on the counter. A comb. A swimming cap. A little notebook. A pencil. It was completely child-like. I thought “Wow, this guy isn’t that good at life either.”
During that radio interview, Sacks referred to himself as an “isolate.” He said he didn’t form strong attachments to people, and that it was just the way he was. Around the same time I’d started reading Haruki Murakami novels, and I imagined Oliver Sacks as one of Murakami’s characters—a solitary man with a simple life and a few quirks. I imagined Haruki Murakami describing Oliver Sacks with the reportorial kindness that Oliver Sacks used to write about his patients. I imagined myself that way too.
I went on to have more love affairs and minor skirmishes and book ideas in the next decade. I zigged and zagged with the appropriate youthful energy. I stayed in the rock tumbler of false starts for a long, long time, into my deep thirties and on toward forty. I’m still there. I never settled down, and I never got my teeth into any real creative success. I got tired, and I got somewhat practical. When Oliver Sacks’s essay on facing death was published this February, I had been freshly dumped and was heading into my fourth year as an editor at a financial firm. I received his New York Times essay like a religious text. I trusted everything he said about living and dying. When I read his writing, I felt like I was learning how to be a person.
I didn’t know until his obituary today that before he died, Oliver Sacks ended decades of celibacy and had a serious relationship with another writer. I’m so glad he did, but when I read his essay back in February, I still thought of him as an isolate and that was part of the comfort I found there. He spoke of clarity, audacity, plain speech. He spoke of love and work. He spoke of the death of contemporaries, the chipping away of self. He had floated above his life enough to see that everything was connected. He said he was afraid of dying but more than that, he was grateful.
I had these nightmares as a kid that certain and painful death is a few minutes away. I’m with my mother and my sister, and we are trapped. We’ve run, we’ve struggled, we’ve hidden—we’ve tried everything. Now we’re just going to die, and we fully realize it. We know that it will be slow enough so that we will have to watch each other die. We wish we had cyanide capsules but we don’t. There are only a couple of minutes before it begins. Then a couple minutes after that it will be over. We look at each other’s faces and huddle together. Then I feel billowing, exploding love for my mother and sister—I’m surrounded by thick, anesthetizing love. I see it reflecting back at me from them, and it multiplies and swells and echoes between us. We’re still going to die, the fear is still there—but the love is just more important.
I’ve been trying to climb out of a hole all year. It’s hard to keep your mojo sometimes. Meaninglessness gets more biting, and you just want to lie down and let entropy do its thing. I always think of the Virginia Woolf line, “It’s not catastrophes, murders, deaths, diseases, that age and kill us; it’s the way people look and laugh, and run up the steps of omnibuses.” When I remember that everyday life is the horror, sometimes I can invoke the antidote I found in my nightmare. Love—in whatever form you can muster it.
Oliver Sacks died today. Time to get back to work.