I was first aware of Oliver Sacks with the publication in 1985 of his book The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. The descriptions of his mentally ill patients were as intriguing as the title. A few years later, Robin Williams played Sacks in Awakenings, the story of the kind and idealistic doctor who finds a drug that revives his catatonic patients at a hospital in the Bronx.
Sacks died of cancer in 2015. He had been writing for a few months for the New York Times about his struggle. One of these wrenching and beautiful pieces is “My Periodic Table.” In it, Sacks describes three aspects of nature in which he sees different sides of himself.
“Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.” With death approaching, “I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity.” These include element 81, Thalium, a souvenir of last year’s 81st birthday; Lead, 82, for the birthday just celebrated; and Bismuth, 83. “I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ‘83’ around.”
(Reading this touched off my own memory of how, as a boy, I tried with my father’s help to collect all 92 natural elements. In a display case on the wall over my bed I placed some sulfur and carbon from my chemistry set, small bottles of hydrogen, nitrogen and other gases that I had made, and bits of lead, iron, and other metals. Bringing together in my room the building blocks of nature felt like a commanding achievement, though the final display came to only about 20 items.)
While Sacks finds consolation in the basic metals, he responds differently to the stars. About viewing the starry sky one night, he writes that “It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience—and death.”
Lastly, when he “wanted to have a little fun” before beginning immunotherapy, he visited the lemur research center in North Carolina. “Lemurs are close to the ancestral stock from which all primates arose, and I am happy to think that one of my own ancestors, 50 million years ago, was a little tree-dwelling creature not so dissimilar to the lemurs of today. I love their leaping vitality, their inquisitive nature.”
A lively ancestor, mortality among the stars, deathless birthday metals—a sacred trinity of sorts, Sacks’ selection of holy companions. We select from nature according to our joys and fears. The chemical elements mean little to me now and I don’t have thoughts one way or the other about metals and their durability. But I share sometimes Sacks’ sense of feeling belittled by the stars; they do inspire awe, but in contemplating my life and death, I’m in need of something friendlier. For me, Sacks’ lemurs are on a better track. I find consolation by including myself among the mass of organisms of all kinds—not just humans—living and dying now, the wave of rising and falling life as the current of beings sweeps on, out of its billion-year past.