On the Timely Demise of Oliver Sacks
It’s a little weird that the world should keep turning; and my dear friends will maintain their own unique mental illnesses without such a man to write lyrically about them, in particular, unto them; and that his peculiar speech impediment–the lipped swallowing of R’s into W’s–will no longer exist from that mouth.
He was a man who put rare-earth magnets into his pockets while walking, so as to understand the experience of pigeons navigating; and now he is no longer that man, and he will not be again. In a world that had Oliver Sacks in it, the man who mistook his wife for a hat–the man who repeatedly misperceived his dearest loved one so extraordinarily that he erased her humanity in his own eyes–had a chance to be beautiful. “Mistook,” such an innocent word, the bumbling sweetness of a child–“Oh, I was mistaken, after all you ARE my wife.” The world has closed in, just a little, but a multitude, a whole universe has ended with the ending of Oliver Sacks–a universe of thought, an 82-year-long-life, no other could have used the world “mistook.” His lyrics are snuffed. So now the world, having closed in just a little, turns without the benefit of this one man’s observation; we plod along, now, preoccupied as always with our own soft insanities, without the poetry of Oliver Sacks to describe them. And every few moments the world opens again to permit the emergence of a new mind, promising it’s own long soliloquy of poetry, and insanity, and he might have described each one were he still here; but he won’t, and now his is gone, and at least his awareness overlapped ours long enough for us to notice each other. At least we had him for 82 years. RIP, Oliver.
I seriously recommend listening to this just-rebroadcast Radiolab piece on Oliver’s life—which, I’m fairly sure, contains audio from an on-stage interview Robert Krulwich did with him a few years ago at Cooper Union, which I stumbled across five minutes before it happened, and at which I ended up sitting just behind Neil DeGrasse Tyson. That was Dr. Sacks: He was a titan, surrounded by titans, and yet infinitely, disarmingly humble. The piece is an amazing tribute to him.