Oliver Sacks and His Periodic Table: It is the process of dying that matters most

This week an old and dear friend of mine died of terminal lung cancer. She was 85 and lived a very full life as a professor of literature, a poet, a gardener, an ocean swimmer, a daughter and a friend to many. I was fortunate to be able to visit her a few weeks ago in California while she was still ambulatory and able to say a few words and share a few memories. The world always feels to me like there’s an empty space and a loss of energy when someone close to me dies.

Without meaning to be morbid, I must confess that dying has been on my mind somewhat this past year as I fought my own battle with fourth-stage cancer. Apparently, I am not alone in my thoughts: There is a national conversation taking place about the process of dying. We are debating how much control people should have over their own death; whether they have the right to end their own lives if they no longer wish to live; whether doctors should have conversations about death with their patients (and whether or not they should be reimbursed for those conversations); and what constitutes quality of life when you have a terminal illness. The list goes on and on.

Today there was an editorial in the NY Sunday Times written by Oliver Sacks, one of my favorite “science” writers and observers of human behavior. A professor of neurology at New York University, he has written many famous books about unusual human phenomena including The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat. He is now in the process of dying from terminal liver cancer that is now in its final stages. He has already written and published several articles about his own process of dying and I have hung on every word he has written. Yes, partly because I came too close for comfort this past winter myself, but more because I am fascinated by how clear-headed he is about the process he is experiencing and sharing with us. No one wants to talk about death; yet, he does. In fact, I wish I could have had a few personal conversations with him this past winter as I contemplated my own demise.

Mr. Sacks finds that he is comforted by what he refers to as the “physical world” and explains how he wishes he could be around for certain discoveries in nuclear physics that are on the brink of happening. He explains how his beloved “element-friends in England” each year send him the corresponding element to each of his birthdays. So this year, for example, they sent him “a realm devoted to lead, element 82” for his recent 82nd birthday. He also cherishes a “beautifully machined piece of beryllium (element 4) to remind me of my childhood and of how long ago my soon-to-end life began.” He shares that he wants to be wheeled outdoors to gaze upon the night sky when he is close to death. So do I.

I am currently reading a book entitled Kingdom of Ten Thousand Things, which the author, Gary Geddes, subtitled “An Impossible Journey from Kabul to Chiapas.” I am a sucker for pilgrimages of any kind that satisfy my wanderlust and my search for the meaning of life. This is about a personal journey undertaken by the author to trace the path of a legendary monk from Afghanistan, named Huishen, who journeyed across Asia and finally to the Northwest Coast of the Americas long before the Europeans arrived to share spiritual teachings about Buddhism with everyone along the way. The author finds scant evidence to support this legend, but is determined to find out for himself whatever he can. Last night while reading, I learned something that surprised me. Although the Chinese do register births, they do not record the deaths of individuals. No Death Certificate is issued. Thus, in more than one monastery where he hoped to obtain some information about Huishen, there was none.

This practice in China, which continues today, caused me to pause. It seemed such a huge contrast in cultures; one that I had never known existed. Here in the Western world we have made death more and more of an event. Even though we still haven’t agreed on the details, we do seem to agree that honoring the death of a loved one or important person is part of our culture. And now, thanks to enlightened souls like Oliver Sacks, we are being provided with a peek into a personal experience that still has us transfixed, but is becoming less and less of a mystery. I, for one, am encouraged by the greatly diverse and unique experiences people have as they are dying, and that there is not one best way to die. It would make me very sad to think that the end of a life would not be noticed or honored in some way. I hope that I can one day make the process of dying a meaningful one for myself and my loved ones. I pledge to support anyone else’s choice to do so to the best of my ability.

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11 thoughts on “Oliver Sacks and His Periodic Table: It is the process of dying that matters most”

    1. Thank you so much for your very encouraging words. And for your note on the blogsite about my link. I was really struggling last night to get my blog published and finally gave up! Miraculously, it was posted when I looked at the site this am. It’s really nice of you to offer help. I was afraid no one would read the site, due to its subject matter…

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  1. Your writing struck a chord with me as a good friend is seeing her mother through her last days. It is interesting the differences among cultures with traditions surrounding death and dying. Sending you warm wishes.

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    1. Seeing a friend or loved one through their final days is not easy, but I feel it’s the last, best thing we can do as human beings. I am hoping that more and more people will realize this so that when it becomes our turn, we may not be as afraid as we might have been without love and support.

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  2. Thank you for sharing your story and the quote from Oliver Sacks. The Buddhist say to live every day as though it were your last. From your writing I can tell that you have learned that lesson. Keep writing about this important subject. I agree with you everyone deserves the right to leave this existence in the manner they choose and every life should be celebrated.

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  3. I really enjoyed and appreciated your comments. I have found Buddhist concepts very helpful to me at stressful times. Thank you for your encouragement to continue writing about these matters…I needed that validation.

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  4. I’ve been pondering this same topic as I realized that with my last birthday, my time here may be shorter than the time I’ve been here. There was no illness to bring it to a head, just muddling thoughts in my mind. Every day, I know that life is precious and I want to enjoy the life I’ve chosen.
    Thanks for missing my voice last week. 🙂 ILA is the International Literacy Association which was previously named IRA, International Reading Association. It is a professional organization that promotes literacy around the world.

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  5. Your post has moved me powerfully, both through what you have to say as well as your wise and contemplative voice. I hear echoes of many of the conversations I’ve been having with my almost 90year old mother… Thanks for pointing out the article and book, too. And thanks, again, for this beautifully written and wise post.

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    1. It’s wonderful that you are having those conversations with your mother. My mother never wanted to have them, but we managed well in spite of that. This is, indeed, a powerful subject. Thank you for supporting my writing about it; I wasn’t sure what the response would be. I always look forward to hearing from you.

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