Oliver Sacks: A Composer and His Last Work

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.

By that time, mid-August of 2015, Oliver knew he was going to die, probably soon, from the metastatic cancer that had been diagnosed seven months earlier. He was weakened and nauseated and barely able to eat. Even so, his mind was absolutely sharp. Later that same day, at the same desk seen in the photo, Oliver sat across from me and dictated the table of contents for what would become the last book he would oversee.

I remember that moment so clearly; it was a dull, humid, saddening afternoon, then Oliver suddenly got a second wind. Arranging this book would be a “most welcome” distraction from the horrible “boredom” of dying. Boredom was almost worse for Oliver than the discomfort he endured, for he no longer had the energy to write or read at length, much less to swim or take a walk. And as ill as he was, he still didn’t sleep well, so he couldn’t nap away the day — his mind was just too active, teeming with thoughts.

He hadn’t come up with the idea for this book on the spot. He had been thinking carefully about it for months. But now, right now, he wished to get it down on paper and make sure that those of us he’d appointed to edit his work posthumously understood his intentions.

He wanted this to be a book of scientific essays, distinct from his neurological case histories and memoirs; he felt these were some of his strongest pieces of writing from the past two decades. (One of them, “Mishearings,” was among the final suite of essays he wrote for The Times.) Topping the list were two he had written for The New York Review of Books on Charles Darwin — unique takes on Darwin, both delightful and erudite: one on his research on flowers, the other on his studies of “the humble” earthworm (Darwin’s last book).

To say that Darwin was Oliver Sacks’s greatest hero somehow doesn’t do justice to the admiration he felt for him. I suppose there isn’t a single word that fits. There are only Oliver’s own words — as in these, from the book:

It is often felt that Darwin, more than anyone, banished “meaning” from the world — in the sense of any overall divine meaning or purpose.…. [And yet] evolutionary theory provided, for many of us, a sense of deep meaning and satisfaction that belief in a divine plan had never achieved. The world that presented itself to us became a transparent surface, through which one could see the whole history of life. The idea that it could have worked out differently, that dinosaurs might still be roaming the earth or that human beings might never have evolved, was a dizzying one. It made life seem all the more precious and a wonderful, ongoing adventure.

Oliver saw his own life and career in a similar way: neither predictable nor predetermined but susceptible to the unexpected, to new experiences, which he embraced openly, hungrily. Of course he knew that he had certain intellectual and creative gifts, but he also felt fortunate that chance had favored him, as it sometimes does in nature. Who would have thought, for instance, that a book about people with neurological disorders and the odd title “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” would become a best seller in the mid-1980s and send Dr. Oliver Sacks off on the path it did? He certainly didn’t, and he knew it could all have turned out very differently. In the end, he was truly grateful for the life he’d had.

On that long August afternoon a little more than two years ago, Oliver completed his notes for the book he knew he would not see. He named it “The River of Consciousness” — the title of one of the 10 essays — and dedicated it to his longtime friend and editor at The New York Review of Books, Bob Silvers. He wrote a letter to Mr. Silvers to share this news, and within days, he received a tender letter back. (Mr. Silvers died this year.) With that, I think he felt he had done everything he could.

Oliver spent his last few days and nights at home listening to music — Bach and Mozart; dictating last letters to loved ones; and, when not sleeping, listening as a small circle of friends took shifts reading aloud to him at his bedside from his favorite books.

(Originally published in The New York Times, Oct. 24, 2017)

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