Oliver Sacks: My Own Life

New York Times Op-Ed, February 19th 2015. Neuroscientist Oliver Sacks writes about finding out he has terminal cancer.

Oliver Sacks hit a home-run for me with the remark that he will stop watching the news as politics belong to the future, a future he no longer will be part of. The article is incredibly uplifting and yet so sad. Oliver rejoices in a life well lived and for the tiniest of fractions I shared that life.

I met Oliver Sacks one summer in the mid 2000’s. We shared our beloved swim coach and friend, Doug Stern, who passed suddenly from cancer a few years later. Oliver and I spent time in the same triathlon camp upstate – me for triathlon, him for swimming and antiquing. I wasn’t sure what to make of him – and only years later when I read that he had a severe case of Prosopagnosia (face blindness), did I understand, that what I had perceived as aloofness and arrogance, was the incapacity to recognize people he had just met. I have two distinct memories from that weekend.

Firstly Oliver Sacks interviewed the young bike racers that where at Mike Fraysse’s bike camp all summer about what happened to their perception of reality as they crashed. It was fascinating to watch and listen to the young men, many from Honduras who spoke broken English, and Oliver Sacks deep in conversation about the slowing of reality to minute details as they had – some quite horrific – bike accidents during races and training sessions.

A few years later, when I had my own experience “crashing” when I was hit by a car while biking, I had a chance to experience the same surreal slowing of time, a clarity of mind; thinking so many things and perceiving so many details in what must have been a fraction of a second. To this day I remember every detail of seeing the two cars that entered the intersection just before I did, one passing, the other seemingly coming to a full stop, me waving at the stopped car, entering the intersection, the sudden realization of what was happening – then a memory gap while I get hit – a very clear memory of flying through the air and my mostly unprintable thoughts – then another memory gap as I land – and immediately after landing on my derriere the acute assessment of my situation and that of those around me. At the same time crucial details went missing: the impact and the landing. Everything else is crystal clear. Fractions of seconds lost – maybe because the pain was too much and my brain was preoccupied and couldn’t form memories? Alas, there will be no weekend at Mike Fraysee’s bike camp to ask Oliver that question.

The second memory is rather comical. After a hard day of training in my case, and in Oliver’s of swimming and antiquing with this lovely friend Peter we ended up in Doug’s hot tub. I got to sit to Oliver’s right. I’m no longer sure of the details of the conversation we had, but it resulted in me checking Oliver’s nose for temperature. To do so, I used the palm side of my fingers. Oliver looked at me with stern disapproval, shook his head and told me that my fingers palm-side did not possess the sensitivity to accurately asses temperature and that if I was to do that again I was to use the back of my hand. Needless to say, I didn’t assess anybody’s temperature of anything in the hot tub after that.

Oh, and then there’s a third memory I had tucked away. Oliver had just published his memoir Uncle Tungsten and told me to read it after he learned I was Swiss, with the note, that he had little regard for the Swiss due to anti-Semitic encounter in Zurich. I did buy the autobiography of course, but didn’t share his fascination with the table of elements and soon lost interest never making it to the offending section. Maybe on purpose? The mind is a curious thing and Oliver would be able to tell you ALL about it.

Despite being lectured in the hot tub by Oliver Sacks it was never lost on me what a privilege it is to have met this beautiful mind and lovely man. May his remaining days be plentiful, filled with purpose, love and laughter, and may they be painless.