Oliver Sacks on Facing Death
Will my last days be filled with gratitude or regret?
My tears surprise me. I am reading Oliver Sacks’ New York Times op-ed where he shares that his cancer has metastasized to his liver and in a few months he will leave this world.
These are not the tears I cry when I hear of a young mother stricken with incurable cancer, or a teenager plucked from this world tragically before his prime. In his 81 years Sacks has achieved dazzling success and acclaim as both a scientist and an author. His ground-breaking discoveries in the field of neuro-science have transformed modern medicine's understanding of the brain. Hailed by The New York Times as “the poet laureate of medicine,” Sacks will leave the world of both medicine and literature infinitely richer.
It is the fullness of his life which moves me. It is specifically the fact that he stands facing death with not a whisper of regret in his words. Quite the opposite, his words are dripping with fulfilment and gratitude. Till his last day, he chooses to embrace the world: “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he writes. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can.”
I cry because I, too, will one day stand at the edge of my life. As unwilling as I am to think of death, I know it will inevitably happen. But what terrifies me most is to stand at the brink of my life and to have not lived fully. I am so full at the moment, brimming with dreams and plans and hopes and goals. I want so much – for myself, for my relationships, for my children. Yet I am constantly unsure that I will get there. I find myself pushing off my dreams to another day.
Oliver Sacks does not live in the world of “another day.” He faces death with courage and serenity because he is living a life replete with vitality. To stand at the edge of the this world, looking back with regrets and saying to yourself, I had dreams but I was afraid. I held grudges because I was too proud to let it go. I wanted to do so much but I got distracted. I thought there was more time – that is frightening.
Often one hears of stories of near-fatal events where a person was miraculously saved from an illness or an accident. A bucket list is written and dramatic changes to their lives are made. Relationships are prioritized, old feuds are settled and a heightened awareness of purpose and the sacredness of each moment is awakened. Do we have to wait for a tragedy to realign our goals?
Each of us is born with infinite potential for greatness. Yet we hold back. The what-ifs, the have-tos, the should-haves often cloud our choices. Sometimes we don’t examine our choices fully. We let the expectations and social norms dictate. Our dreams remained buried among fears and complacency.
So reading Sacks’ reflections as he nears the end of his time in the world, I am envious. He is confident that he has given his all. “But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written.” To be overflowing with gratitude in the face of death can only be a result of life lived with constant appreciation of the blessings.
So with the courage, engagement and creativity that he lived his life, he approaches his death. The self he has cultivated – the self of love and gratitude is what he will carry through the rest of the days on this planet.
The tears I shed tell of a profound yearning for such a life. I imagine of myself at the end of my days as an old woman. My limbs may be frail and weary; and my face may be wrinkled, but I dream that I will hold a deep satisfaction that I gave my all. That I was brave and I loved and contributed what only I was able to. I want to know without a shadow of a doubt that I did all I could have done.