Newsletter: Bill Hayes and Oliver Sacks

Today I take the content directly from the true and irreplaceable Brain Pickings. And our topic will be the also irreplaceable Oliver Sacks – a largehearted genius of ceaseless eccentricity, who collects spectacles and dreams of fern salad and writes with a fountain pen and has never emailed or texted or owned a computer; who, when taught to open a champagne bottle in his late seventies, dons his swimming goggles “just in case”; who earnestly calls pot “cannabis” and exclaims with gusto when stoned into hallucination: “The primary cortex! The genius of the primary cortex!”: a man of imagination so infinite and empathy so complete that when asked what he has been doing lying in the garden for hours, he replies that he has been wondering about what it’s like to be a rose. (From another point of view, a wonderful writer – I cannot recommend you enough his The man who mistook his wife for a hat –, and a famed neurologist!) What follows (in italics) has its origin in the book Insomniac City: New York, Oliver, and me, written by Bill Hayes, the partner of Oliver.

(Sacks) I suppose it’s a cliché to say you’re glad to be alive, that life is short, but to say you’re glad to be not dead requires a specific intimacy with loss that comes only with age or deep experience. One has to know not simply what dying is like, but to know death itself, in all its absoluteness.

After all, there are many ways to die – peacefully, violently, suddenly, slowly, happily, unhappily, too soon. But to be dead – one either is or isn’t.

The same cannot be said of aliveness, of which there are countless degrees. One can be alive but half-asleep or half- noticing as the years fly, no matter how fully oxygenated the blood and brain or how steadily the heart beats. Fortunately, this is a reversible condition. One can learn to be alert to the extraordinary and press pause – to memorize moments of the everyday.

It is with such an appetite for aliveness that Dr. Sacks meets his own death when the unexpected diagnosis of the rare recurrence of a rare cancer interrupts the idyll of their love [between Hayes and Sacks]. But even this news he receives with his inescapable essence of a writer and a lucid optimist, a liver of life, underlining each word as he writes atop a new page of his notepad: “Sad, shocking, horrible, yes, but…” In one of the finest parenthetical passages I’ve ever encountered, replete with wisdom beyond its concrete context, Hayes explains:

(Hayes) (Oliver often said that but was his favorite word, a kind of etymological flip of the coin, for it allowed consideration of both sides of an argument, a topic, as well as a kind of looking-at-the-bright-side that was as much a part of his nature as his diffidence and indecisiveness.)

Beneath that underlined heading, Dr. Sacks lists what Hayes calls “eight and one-half reasons to remain hopeful; to feel lucky at the very moment when one might reasonably feel most unlucky”. [This would become his famous essay “My own life”]

His life expectancy suddenly compressed by the terminal diagnosis, Dr. Sacks sets out to compress in turn as much life as possible into the time he has left. The seed for this zest, if fertilized by the diagnosis, had been there all along, captured in a prescient remark he had made to Hayes early in their love, years before the fatal illness:

(Sacks) I don’t so much fear death as I do wasting life.

Hayes, in a supreme testament to how love teaches us to borrow the best parts of one another, tempers his melancholy with Oliver’s infinite capacity for buoyancy of mind and spirit.

(Hayes) I remember how Wendy once told me she loved New York so much she couldn’t bear the thought of it going on without her. It seemed like both the saddest and the most romantic thing one could possible say – sad because New York can never return the sentiment, and sad because it’s the kind of thing said more often about a romantic love – husband, wife, girlfriend, partner, lover. You can’t imagine them going on without you. But they do. We do. Every day, we may wake up and say, What’s the point? Why go on? And, there is really only one answer: to be alive.

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