Fuck cancer. Seriously. We keep losing immense numbers of good people to it; I have lost close friends and family members to it. And yesterday, I was aghast to learn that one of my most favorite scientist/authors, Professor Oliver Sacks, has fallen a prey to this scourge. As he announced yesterday in a New York Times Op-Ed:

… a few weeks ago I learned that I have multiple metastases in the liver. Nine years ago it was discovered that I had a rare tumor of the eye, an ocular melanoma. Although the radiation and lasering to remove the tumor ultimately left me blind in that eye, only in very rare cases do such tumors metastasize. I am among the unlucky 2 percent.

Oliver Sacks, photo by Dan Lurie
Photo Credit: Modified from original by Dan Lurie (dantekgeek on Flickr), used under CC-BY-SA 2.0

Luck, that fickle and perfidious expression of the vicissitudes of a whimsical, uncaring universe. Why do good people have such bad luck?

81 and in apparent good health, Professor Sacks now faces death within a few months from an advanced, incurable cancer that is eating away at his liver. It makes me immeasurably sad. I know death eventually comes to everyone, and I have given it quite some thought (link to an old post in my other blog). I like to think that I, personally, am prepared for it, unafraid. But death, the only constant in our lives, does not come without exacting a price, the sense of an irretrievable loss, the creation of an insatiable vacuum. Professor Sacks expresses it beautifully when he writes:

… each death I have felt as an abruption, a tearing away of part of myself. There will be no one like us when we are gone, but then there is no one like anyone else, ever. When people die, they cannot be replaced. They leave holes that cannot be filled, for it is the fate — the genetic and neural fate — of every human being to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.

Of course, beautiful expressions are Professor Sacks’ forte. Born in London, UK, trained at the Oxford University and University of California at Los Angeles, and currently a professor of neurology at the New York University School of Medicine, Oliver Sacks, MD, has authored of many books, including “Musicophilia” and “The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat” (my first experience with his writing; I read these two one after the other), amongst many others. What struck an immediate chord with me about these real-life stories drawn from Professor Sacks’ professional encounters were the immense empathy and all-encompassing compassion for the people he wrote about, as well as the deep humanity of the man, amply reflected in his storytelling.

Needless to say, I am quite stoked about his memoir, On the Move, to be published in May this year. The blurb from the publishers, Alfred A. Knopf, mentions:

When Oliver Sacks was twelve years old, a perceptive schoolmaster wrote in his report: “Sacks will go far, if he does not go too far.” It is now abundantly clear that Sacks has never stopped going. From its opening pages on his youthful obsession with motorcycles and speed, On the Move is infused with his restless energy.

It is the same energy that has kept him going through his “vehement disposition, with violent enthusiasms, and extreme immoderation in all (his) passions” – as he characterized himself in his NYT Op-Ed. But lest you be fooled by his self-deprecating humor and honesty, he is also the brilliantly unconventional scientist who has significantly revolutionized the modern appreciation of the functioning of brain, especially how it makes us human, in course of his professional career. For a comprehensive glimpse of the brilliance of this man’s mind and the essence of his humanity, do read this old analytical, well-written profile by journalist Steve Silberman in the Wired Magazine.

As is perhaps natural, the specter of impending death has not been able to rob Professor Sacks of his poise and grace, nor his courage. The deathly diagnosis, he insists, does not mean he is finished with life – quite the contrary. He writes:

… I feel intensely alive, and I want and hope in the time that remains to deepen my friendships, to say farewell to those I love, to write more, to travel if I have the strength, to achieve new levels of understanding and insight.

This will involve audacity, clarity and plain speaking; trying to straighten my accounts with the world. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well).

I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. There is no time for anything inessential. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends…

For the final part of your journey, I wish you the same joie de vivre that you have so long embodied, Professor, and I wish you peace at the end. You shall live on in the memories of the countless lives you have influenced, directly and indirectly.