On the Art of Dying

By Corynn Greene

Oliver Wolf Sacks is many things – a neurologist, a writer, a professor, and as of earlier this year he’s a sufferer of terminal cancer. His reveal of being diagnosed with multiple metastases in the liver pulled at the heartstrings of everyone who read it, announcing that his, “luck has run out,” and that this cancer, “cannot be halted.”

From Freud to Camus to Shakespeare, the great minds of this world have always contemplated death and the human struggle to conceptualize something shrouded in such mystery. Should we fear the great unknown? Can we even? Is the undiscovered country something we should seek out? Or do we take our chances with what we already have? No one knows exactly what it means to die, but we do know how we each individually view death and what it means to us. In Sacks’ recent New York Times article My Periodic Table he, as a great mind himself, provides further insight on how he’s dealing with his – and our – imminent fate.

Reflecting on a recent memory of looking up at a night sky full of stars Sacks eloquently and honestly states, “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.” Everyone must have that moment of coming to terms with life’s brevity, and it’s what you do with it, how you react to it that often partially defines the way you’re remembered – Sacks’ approach, unsurprisingly, is wholly unique.

“Bismuth is element 83. I do not think I will see my 83rd birthday, but I feel there is something hopeful, something encouraging, about having ’83’ around. Moreover, I have a soft spot for bismuth, a modest gray metal, often unregarded, ignored, even by metal lovers. My feeling as a doctor for the mistreated or marginalized extends into the inorganic world and finds a parallel in my feelings for bismuth.” – Oliver Sacks

He has found comfort in the physical sciences. Some may say this is an odd place of solace, but in his current time of need he has turned to the periodic table as a sort of companion – much like how he did when he was a young child. “And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept but a presence – an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence – I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity,” says Sacks.

Sacks sees that within the realm of the physical sciences, the nonhuman, there is no life but also no death, and this is where that source of comfort comes from. In his self-authored piece he describes his periodic table, which holds trinkets of multiple elements – including thallium (element 81) and lead (element 82) in recognition of recent birthdays past, as well as beryllium (element 4) and polonium (element 84) as representations of where he began and what is never to come.

In February Sacks said, “it is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in richest, deepest, most productive way that I can.” And what he’s done since, in his writing about his periodic table, is left us with a new way to grapple with death – the thought that although we may be impermanent there are things in this world that are not, and that there is value in embracing our mortality.

“My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of a part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate – the genetic and neural fate – of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, and to die his own death,” he said.

Everyone aspires, or at least should aspire, to be a little like Oliver Sacks – he is supremely intelligent, humbly human, and unwaveringly devoted – and he will be remembered as such in death as he is currently celebrated as in life.

Oliver Sacks portrait by Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP