My farewell letter to Oliver Sacks

I would have continued to keep private this love letter to a dying man I’ve never met, if I hadn’t been feeling ever more strongly the pull to follow his beacon and *write*, in the year and a half since I wrote Oliver Sacks this letter of farewell, on 16 August 2015. He died two weeks later – on 30 August.

I have no idea whether my email got to him in time, before his death. But I like to believe it did.

Some things need to be said to the people who need to hear them, before it’s too late. And I hope my slightly stingingly personal example here (my conditioning is making me wince here, but I’m going to share this anyway, because I believe in walking the talk) fulfils its intention of inviting you to consider the same, to whomever yours might be. 

*** *** ***

Dear Oliver,

Since…10 years ago, I haven’t sat down to write a love letter…Not until this letter to you, that is.

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Because there is no other word to describe the quality of my admiration, affection, and wonder, for the life that you have led, the words that you have shared, and the impact that you have had in my life, from the moment “Hat” appeared on my first Psychology/Philosophy/Physiology reading list when I went up to St Hilda’s in 1996, earning its place on my bookshelf where it still proudly sits alongside a repeatedly pared-down bunch of equally resonant companions, until with the greatest reluctance I closed the end cover of “On The Move” two months ago, immeasurably moved by your courage and humanity and all that you are and all that you have been, and resolved to write this letter to you, so at least you know.

(I’ve been carrying around my fountain pen and my good, family-address-embossed, letter paper and tissue-lined envelope around me for the last two months, through six different countries, wanting to write this to you the proper way. But when “My Periodic Table” and “Sabbath” came out, I knew I was running out of time. Better good enough in time than perfect too late.)

Oliver, how deeply you were loved, everywhere. I’m sure you see that by now. As a career coach I often start my engagements with a funeral scenario; imagine you’re dead, floating above your own coffin, at the end of a long fruitful life. Who are the people coming to celebrate you? Your ghostly privileges allow you direct access into their heads and hearts; as you see their faces, most known, a few surprises, many whom are strangers, whom you had no idea you had an impact on at all; some weeping, others lost in thought, some smiling as they savour a sweet old memory of you, or think of all that you have been. What lies in their hearts? What are they here to celebrate you for?

And every time I run this scenario, I wonder, why do we humans wait until the end to say these precious things to each other? Why do we not tell them how much they meant to us until it is often too late?

Reading “Hat” nineteen years ago, infused with your signature warmth, wisdom, humour, and compassion, your searching scientific curiosity, has been one of those few linchpin moments that together determined my life’s path.

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Where I struggled with coursemates who didn’t seem to share my passion for my subject, never seemingly wanting to discuss and enjoy outside the classroom the things we were learning in it, where the idea of loving your work, and particularly for me – having taken up this course in the first place because I wanted so much to understand what makes people tick, how to read people, and how to help people with the things I would learn – wanting to USE the things I was learning to make a hugely positive difference to people by helping them understand themselves and the world around them better, because to me everything in our human experience comes through the human mind and body; these deep desires of mine found frustratingly little outlet, because […] things were to be kept “pure” and “scientific” and application was disdained and left for others to do. (Maybe things have changed since then, and maybe I was experiencing a partial and skewed sample of the total Psychology offering even then, but this remains my true subjective experience for what it’s worth.)

In that cold result-oriented space, your engaging, deeply humane case studies, so easy to read and (because of that) so compelling as sources of learning, shone out like a lighthouse. And I’ve basically spent the last nineteen years of my life, and intend to spend the rest of my years that I am given, guided by that same lighthouse…telling the same kinds of story, bridge-building ones, commonising ones, edifying ones, ones that hold a light or magnifying glass to some aspect of our common human experience, to in some way “make the world a better place”, a kinder, more aligned, more supportive, more responsible, more understanding and appreciative and robust and resilient and joyful and healthy and harmonious and fulfilling place.

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To then read “On The Move”, when I had already been so awed by the “you” that came across in “Hat” and “An Anthropologist on Mars”, was a multiple punch to the stomach. It was almost unbearable, to see for the first time ALL that had been going on behind the scenes. And I mean this not in a negative way… I write this this way to convey some sense of how visceral the experience of “Move” has been for me, and continues to be. And that’s why I come back to the word, love. Because it is the biggest feeling word of all, and of all the words to convey the connecting of one human being to another it is the one word that captures most fully the richness and variety and depth of that potential, that potential that lies between every human being, one to the other.

And you have laid yourself and the full richness of your living so bare to us, Oliver, like the peerless scientist/storyteller/polymath/lover of life that you are, so beautifully, so simply and rawly, with such breathtaking openness and integrity… as if it wasn’t unbearable enough to apprehend that incredible richness of your one life’s experiences – like staring straight into a bright light – the wordsmith in me was overcome from beginning to end by the *craft* of your writing, a thing of such beauty that if you had been writing your weekly grocery list it would still have made compelling reading I’m sure. (I only wish I knew what your handwriting *looks* like, but I am sure it is also deeply beautiful.)

Thank you, Oliver, for giving yourself to us so wholly. Through all your obstacles and struggles, wrestling your demons, in the depths of your solitude, in the face of communities or people that rejected you or what you had to offer, you kept searching for ways to give of yourself. Despite it all. When men of lesser stuff would have given up a long time ago. Even in these final days you give of yourself. I don’t know what it must have taken you, in these days of frailty and ebbing energy, to have put “Sabbath” together, and sent it out to all of us who hang onto everything you still have to give. But it is borne of a life force so inspirational, so *vital*, that even as I write this with tears streaming down my eyes at the prospect of your imminent departure my whole being is charged up at the same time, because of the same, at the baton you are now handing to each and every one of the many millions of us whose lives you have touched so deeply, whether you realise that’s what you’re doing or not… that we, I, too, can step up to the plate and live our own lives as large and beautiful and courageous and good as yours.

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Thank you.

With my love and gratitude,
Elaine

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