I took many pictures of Oliver Sacks during our life together — and not just because I adored him. He was an irresistible subject for a photographer, with his bushy beard, sparkling bespectacled eyes, expressive hands, gaptoothed smile and the athletic build of someone who could easily swim long distances, even into his 80s.
The last picture I took of him, however, captures something quite different. His eyes do not meet mine, his head rests on a propped hand, and he is completely absorbed in a Bach piece he’d been learning to play.
I made a print and showed it to him a couple of days later. He didn’t find it especially flattering, but he liked it. It reminded him of the engraving of an elderly Beethoven in the “Oxford Companion to Music” from 1938. He knew that book practically by heart — a favorite aunt had given it to him as a boy — and he could describe the illustration and its caption with perfect recall: Beethoven’s room is “untidy,” he told me, “and there sits the aged composer, ‘very ill, but indomitable.’ ”
I nodded, his words echoing in my head: very ill, but indomitable — yes.