A TEMPLATE FOR FACING DEATH

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[Oliver Sacks is a noted British neurologist, Professor of Neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, and author of many books, including “Awakenings”  and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat.”  Today he published a piece in the Opinion Pages of The New York Times about learning he has terminal cancer.  I hope when the time comes I can confront my end with such spirited courage. 

The piece is now available to anyone who reads the Times, either on paper or online. But for the many of you who don’t, I’m typing it out here, in part because that will ensure I myself read it again more carefully — but also, and principally, because there are so few helpful road maps for negotiating our way towards what lies ahead for all of us that this piece, heartrending though it is, deserves to be read widely.]

MY OWN LIFE

Oliver Sacks on Learning He Has Terminal Cancer

by OLIVER SACKS  Feb. 19, 2015

A month ago I felt that I was in good health, even robust health. At 81, I still swim a mile a day. But my luck has run out — a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

I feel grateful that I have been granted nine years of good health and productivity since the original diagnosis, but now I am face to face with dying. The cancer occupies a third of my liver, and though its advance may be slowed, this particular kind of cancer cannot be halted.

It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. In this I am encouraged by the words of one of my favorite philosophers, David Hume, who upon learning that he was mortally ill at age 65, wrote a short autobiography in a single day in April of 1776. He titled it “My Own Life.”

“I now reckon upon a speedy dissolution,” he wrote. “I have suffered very little pain from my disorder; and what is more strange, have, notwithstanding the great decline of my person, never suffered a moment’s abatement of my spirits. I possess the same ardor as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company.”

I have been lucky enough to live past 80, and the 15 years allotted to me beyond Hume’s three score and five have been equally rich in work and love. In that time, I have published five books and completed an autobiography (rather longer than Hume’s few pages) to be published this spring; I have several other books nearly finished.

Hume continued, “I am…a man of mild dispositions, of command of temper, of an open, social and cheerful humor, capable of attachment, but little susceptible of enmity, and of great moderation in all my passions.”

Here I depart from Hume.  While I have enjoyed loving relationships and friendships and have no real enmities, I cannot say (nor would anyone who knows me say) that I am a man of mild dispositions. On the contrary, I am a man of vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms and extreme immoderation in all my passions.

And yet, one line from Hume’s essay strikes me as especially true: “It is difficult,” he wrote, “to be more detached from life than I am at present.”

Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.

On the contrary, I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at “NewsHour” every night. I shall no longer pay any attention to politics or arguments about global warming.

This is not indifference but detachment — I still care deeply about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future. I rejoice when I meet gifted young people — even the one who biopsied and diagnosed my metastases. I feel the future is in good hands.

I have been increasingly conscious, for the last 10 years or so, of deaths among my contemporaries. My generation is on the way out, and each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of 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, to die his own death.

I cannot pretend I am without fear. 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. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.

Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.

© 2015 The New York Times Company

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OTHER OLD FOLKS AGREE

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[I’ll be away from home and computer for a while, visiting Bill’s new baby granddaughter in Los Angeles. I should be back online with new stuff no later than February 16, and maybe earlier.  In the meanwhile, I ‘m re-running some earlier pieces that newcomers to the blog may not have seen, and others may not mind seeing again.  This one was the second piece I posted, right after “Why Blog About Getting Old?,”  which is now a Page.]

[Re-blogged from November 15, 2013]

OTHER OLD FOLKS AGREE

Bill is entirely supportive of my blogging efforts. Bill is the man I’ve lived with for the past twelve and a half years.  Since you’re probably wondering, I’ll get it over with up front:  our meeting was real geriatric chick-lit.  I advertised, he responded, we met. His apartment was five minutes away from mine. It didn’t take all that many dates….

Anyway.  When I showed Bill the first post of this new blog about getting old — now also a page, if you missed it — he wanted a piece of the action.  (He qualifies; he’s three and a half years older than me.)  He ran — well, walked — to find a selection of excerpts from the last diaries of Bernard Berenson, the renowned art historian.  The excerpts were (you guessed it) about getting old.

“Here,” he said.  ”You need quotations.”  Bill didn’t think my first husband’s ashtray made the point of that first post (now a page) forcefully enough.

I know all about citing to authorities.  During part of my past life, I was a lawyer and, among other things, wrote briefs for a living.  Show me a brief without copious citation to authorities, and I’ll show you a lawyer who loses the case, and the client.

However I am now retired from my earned income stream and no longer need to convince anyone of anything quite so persuasively.  But I do try to please Bill whenever I can, just as he tries to please me (most of the time).  So I looked at what Berenson had to say.  Here he is on August 13, 1956, when he was ninety-one:

I still want to learn.  I still want to understand, and I still want to write.  How shall I get rid of these lusts?  Physical incompetence only will emancipate me from their slavery, but what kind of freedom will it be? The antechamber of the End.  But how I still enjoy sunlight, nature and stormy skies, and sunsets, and trees and flowers, and animals including well-shaped humans, and reading, and conversing!”

Moving along past the lusts and well-shaped humans, we come to him again on December 20, 1957, when he was ninety-two:

I ought to consult an aurist, a urologist, an eye specialist, an up-to-date dentist, etc., in fact spend most of my time and money in an effort to prolong life.  Why?  Living at my age and with all my disabilities is anything but a picnic.  So why cling to it?  Partly out of mere animal instinct.  Partly out of curiosity about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.  Partly because I am not resigned to giving up, and still am eager to achieve….”

He clung for two more years.

But clinging is not exactly my style, unless we’re talking about Eleanor Roosevelt’s style of clinging:

When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

So if we’re doing quotations, I much prefer Henry James.  As in The Ambassadors, Book 5, Chapter 2:

Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.  It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life….The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have….Live!”

Which is not entirely dissimilar to the sentiments of poor Dylan Thomas, who never had the chance to get old, having destroyed himself early on with drink and despair:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

 Old age should burn and rave at close of day:

 Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Or, if that’s too passionate for you, consider Oliver Sacks, younger than me, who wrote in The New York Times on July 6, 2013, on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  I am looking forward to being 80.”

Free to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  That sounds about right.  Thank you, Oliver (if I may).

Thank you, Bill, for your helpful suggestion.

And now that we’re all squared away with the quotations, one more thank you — to Alexander Portnoy (and Philip Roth) for lending me the end of this post:

So….Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

[Note on why I call this my “new” blog:  Not so long ago, I had another blog called “Learning to Blog” — for test-driving this blogging business.  Although it’s now my “old” blog, you’re cordially invited to visit:  http://www.ninamishkin.wordpress.com ]

OTHER OLD FOLKS AGREE

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Bill is entirely supportive of my blogging efforts.

Bill is the man I’ve lived with for the past twelve and a half years.  Since you’re probably wondering, I’ll get it over with up front:  our meeting was real geriatric chick-lit.  I advertised, he responded, we met. His apartment was five minutes away from mine. It didn’t take all that many dates….

Anyway.  When I showed Bill the first post of this new blog about getting old — now also a page, if you missed it — he wanted a piece of the action.  (He qualifies; he’s three and a half years older than me.)  He ran — well, walked — to find a selection of excerpts from the last diaries of Bernard Berenson, the renowned art historian.  The excerpts were (you guessed it) about getting old.

“Here,” he said.  “You need quotations.”  Bill didn’t think my first husband’s ashtray made the point of that first post (now a page) forcefully enough.

I know all about citing to authorities.  During part of my past life, I was a lawyer and, among other things, wrote briefs for a living.  Show me a brief without copious citation to authorities, and I’ll show you a lawyer who loses the case, and the client.

However I am now retired from my earned income stream and no longer need to convince anyone of anything quite so persuasively.  But I do try to please Bill whenever I can, just as he tries to please me (most of the time).  So I looked at what Berenson had to say.  Here he is on August 13, 1956, when he was ninety-one:

I still want to learn.  I still want to understand, and I still want to write.  How shall I get rid of these lusts?  Physical incompetence only will emancipate me from their slavery, but what kind of freedom will it be? The antechamber of the End.  But how I still enjoy sunlight, nature and stormy skies, and sunsets, and trees and flowers, and animals including well-shaped humans, and reading, and conversing!”

Moving along past the lusts and well-shaped humans, we come to him again on December 20, 1957, when he was ninety-two:

I ought to consult an aurist, a urologist, an eye specialist, an up-to-date dentist, etc., in fact spend most of my time and money in an effort to prolong life.  Why?  Living at my age and with all my disabilities is anything but a picnic.  So why cling to it?  Partly out of mere animal instinct.  Partly out of curiosity about tomorrow and the day after tomorrow.  Partly because I am not resigned to giving up, and still am eager to achieve….”

He clung for two more years.

But clinging is not exactly my style, unless we’re talking about Eleanor Roosevelt’s style of clinging:

When you get to the end of your rope, tie a knot in it and hang on.”

So if we’re doing quotations, I much prefer Henry James.  As in The Ambassadors, Book 5, Chapter 2:

Live all you can: it’s a mistake not to.  It doesn’t matter what you do in particular, so long as you have had your life….The right time is any time that one is still so lucky as to have….Live!”

Which is not entirely dissimilar to the sentiments of poor Dylan Thomas, who never had the chance to get old, having destroyed himself early on with drink and despair:

Do not go gentle into that good night,

 Old age should burn and rave at close of day:

 Rage, rage against the dying of the light.”

Or, if that’s too passionate for you, consider Oliver Sacks, younger than me, who wrote in The New York Times on July 6, 2013, on the occasion of his 80th birthday:

I do not think of old age as an ever grimmer time that one must somehow endure and make the best of, but as a time of leisure and freedom, freed from the factitious urgencies of earlier days, free to explore whatever I wish, and to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  I am looking forward to being 80.”

Free to bind the thoughts and feelings of a lifetime together.  That sounds about right.  Thank you, Oliver (if I may).

Thank you, Bill, for your helpful suggestion.

And now that we’re all squared away with the quotations, one more thank you — to Alexander Portnoy (and Philip Roth) for lending me the end of this post:

So….Now vee may perhaps to begin.  Yes?

[Note on why I call this my “new” blog:  Not so long ago, I had another blog called “Learning to Blog” — for test-driving this blogging business.  Although it’s now my “old” blog, you’re cordially invited to visit:  http://www.ninamishkin.wordpress.com ]