Monday, March 20, 2017
By Karen B. Kaplan
Reading Dr. Sacks’ farewell book with its mournful black cover was like going through a typical day on the job as a hospice chaplain. Just like my patients, this famous author, well-known for his medical narratives such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat: And Other Clinical Tales lists his regrets, his triumphs, his hopes, and his efforts to make sense of the life that he had led. In a word, this book is about how he dealt with his approaching end. Many of us can relate to his regrets, which included wasting time, being shy, and not traveling more. He also hoped to love and work as long as possible; again, much as the average person might yearn for in this circumstance. He also mentioned his regret at not having learned a second language.
Finding out what he had to say about his own medical narrative may interest those who almost never hear about or think about what it means to review one’s life as death nears, but for me I initially found that very predictable. Nevertheless, because he expresses it so eloquently, even as a jaded clinician, I became more and more captivated by his life review. More than that, reading this little book became a ritual means for me to say goodbye to this spectacular and compassionate doctor. For example he explains, “[As I get older] I begin to feel not a shrinking but an enlargement of mental life and perspective…One has seen triumphs and tragedies, booms and busts…One is more conscience of transience, and perhaps, of beauty….One can take a long view and have a vivid, lived sense of history not possible at an earlier age.”
The book was engrossing in so many other respects as well. Like his other works, he offers a distinctive view that makes it a privilege to saunter among his words. Who else would link the number assigned to each element in the periodic table with one’s age? He opens his essay entitled “Gratitude” by saying, “Mercury is element number 80….on Tuesday I will be 80 myself.” He goes on to say that when he was eleven years old that instead of referring to his age, he explained, “I could say ‘I am sodium.’” (Sodium is the eleventh element). Such an association alone should be enough to entice the scientifically minded and the intellectually curious to get this book.
It is poignant to read that his defense mechanism for dealing with loss was to “turn to the nonhuman.” It saddened me to learn that when he was sent away to a boarding school, “numbers became my friends.”And that “the elements and the periodic table became my companions.”
The last chapter is entitled “Sabbath.” Here he mentions his Orthodox upbringing, and his growing indifference to the practice of Judaism and finally his rupture with it when his mother utterly rejected him when she found out he was gay. Much later in life, he was introduced to positive experiences of the Sabbath and found he could enjoy its peace not only on the seventh day of each week, but on the “seventh” day of his life as well.
The act itself of perusing the book is a sort of Sabbath. It causes the reader to reflect, to pause, and to savor existence. “I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
Karen B. Kaplan has been a board certified hospice chaplain for eight years, and is currently serving Center for Hope Hospice in Elizabeth, NJ. She herself has captured end-of-life narratives from her patients in her book, Encountering The Edge: What People Told Me Before They Died. (Pen-L Publishing, 2014). Karen finds balance in her life by reading gentle science fiction (where the robots are friendly and not a weapon in sight) and teaching English as a Second Language.