Oliver Sacks mattered much more than most people will ever know. He is not a household name, so here’s some background. Oliver Sacks was born in London and educated at Oxford, California and New York. He was a professor of clinical neurology at Albert Einstein College of Medicine and author of numerous books, including Awakenings (1990) which became a film starring Robert De Niro and Robin Williams.
I’m not going to recount Mr. Sacks’ achievements or claim to have studied all of his work. This post is not about that. It’s about what came over me when I was given the stunning news that I was the father of a son who had a permanent neurological disability. This was back in the mid 1980’s and it hit me like a ton of bricks. I began to read and research everything i could to understand and learn of ways I could make a difference in my young son’s life.
Needless to say this was before access to digital content. I had to visit libraries, universities, and doctor after doctor. I was not happy with what I was learning or with any of the results.
Then I read Awakenings by Oliver Sacks, and I began to understand that things were not my fault. Nor my son’s fault. The brain is a complex organ. The muscle of thinking. When it’s not shaped perfectly as it grows, things can go a bit off the reservation.
Dr. Sacks demystified the brain, especially brains that work in unusual and sometimes fantastical ways. He did this through deep study and research. By spending time with his patients. By explaining things in stories. He wrote in journal style. Almost like a diary, in great detail. You were there and you began to understand and eventually appreciate people who processed stimuli in a completely different manner.
Mr. Sacks was diagnosed with cancer at age 81 and he faced it head on. My Own Life, which appeared in The New York Times is an amazing read.
His intelligence, creativity and amazing stamina has helped countless people better understand loved ones who are in a way, “out of this world.” He also inspired numerous people to take up brain practice. I always looked forward to his writings and insights, and found it interesting that he was frequently photographed with a hand near or on his head, seemingly trying to reach into his own grey matter for more answers.
He was rare. He will be terribly missed. But at least we had him for a short while. Long enough, I think, to make a huge difference. I know he did for me.
Near the end of his life he said, ” When people die, they cannot be replaced.”
Photo Credit: Joyce Ravid for Alfred A. Knopf publishers, 1995