Dr. Oliver Sacks, the noted neurologist and author who died Sunday of cancer at his home in New York, left us with many gifts. His books, including Awakenings and The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, introduced readers to the quirks of the brain and revived a tradition of case histories that made medicine more humanistic. He portrayed the intricacies of the human mind during a revolutionary period in neuroscience, but never let readers forget the human beings who were the subjects of so much innovation and laboratory scrutiny.
In recent months he also gave us an unwanted gift, after he was diagnosed last December with metastatic cancer, nine years after he suffered a melanoma in his eye. Sacks wrote about his illness and the prospect of death in a series of honest and illuminating essays.
His final gift was an essay on the Jewish Sabbath. Although raised an Orthodox Jew in England, he was not observant as an adult and wrote about his estrangement from religion and Israel. But in his last published essay he recalled the peace he felt on Shabbat as a youth, and how some of the magic of the day came back to him as his own decades of work and creation were coming to an end.
“And now,” he wrote, “weak, short of breath, my once-firm muscles melted away by cancer, I find my thoughts, increasingly, not on the supernatural or spiritual, but on what is meant by living a good and worthwhile life — achieving a sense of peace within oneself. I find my thoughts drifting to the Sabbath, the day of rest, the seventh day of the week, and perhaps the seventh day of one’s life as well, when one can feel that one’s work is done, and one may, in good conscience, rest.”
May his memory be for a blessing.