Really, this post was supposed to be about food. How it became about death, I am not so sure, especially in light of my selective superstiton. Walking under ladders, black cats crossing my path don’t faze me but I haven’t quite made peace with the thought of the inevitable, and I still feel slightly cheated by how all our stories are going to turn out. Eventually.
Not that I feel close to the grand finale but, to quote sofagirl, “the last few years have brought the finish line into view.” In order not to tempt fate, I might think about crossing the bar but I don’t put my thoughts black on white. What if death saw my gibberish and was spurred into action? Clearly fear can make a sentient being regress to medieval thinking. Please, forgive me.
In fact, I do know how I went from Nutella crepes – a sunny thought if ever there was one – to the grim reaper: a family member underwent emergency surgery while Oscar statuettes were handed out and just a couple of days after I read an op-ed by Oliver Sacks that I bookmarked for later use.
Even if you have never read “The man who mistook his wife for a hat” or any other of Dr. Sacks’ books on mental illness, you probably have heard his name over the decades – maybe read an article here or there, or seen the movie “Awakenings”. Oliver Sacks is 81 years old and very close to saying his final goodbyes. And, much more glamorously than most of us ever will, he bid farewell, at least to his readers, in a very public manner, with an article in the Opinion section of the New York Times. His words sneaked into my consciousness and stuck around, not because they are unprecedented, but because of their clarity of intent and, mostly, because, when the time comes, this is how I would like to be able to face my remaining time on earth (assuming I do have a choice).
Unexpectedly, Dr. Sacks’s words also cleared up for me a concept I have been struggling with for years: the difference between “detachment”, as intended by Buddhist teachings, and indifference. I have often wondered if detachment is even possible while taking care of the minutiae of daily life. Live in the present, why worry about what we can’t control and all those suggestions easily found in the self-help section of any respectable bookstore, only take up real meaning when faced with mortality (ours or others’) as a tangible occurrence, rather than an abstraction. Not so easy when reconciling a stingy checking account, working a 12-hour shift or burning dinner.
Dr. Sacks has been diagnosed with a rare recurrence of a rare cancer that has metastasized or, in other words, bad luck at play. He writes:
“It is up to me to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live the richest, deepest, most productive way I can. […]
Over the last few days, I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts. This does not mean I am finished with life.
On the contrary, 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.”
Death as a means to climb to a higher plane of understanding is not a new concept: all religions have run with it and developed it into the promise of an afterlife. But audacity, clarity and plain speaking are attributes that I should like to make tenets of my everyday life – even through drudgery, life is still an adventure that requires temerity, and is best navigated in the absence of mental fog and with a frank mouth.
“I feel a sudden clear focus and perspective. I must focus on myself, my work and my friends. I shall no longer look at ‘Newshour’ every night. I shall no longer pay attention to politics or arguments about global warming.
This is not indifference but detachment – I still care about the Middle East, about global warming, about growing inequality, but these are no longer my business; they belong to the future.”
And for this one sentence, I have to thank Dr. Sacks for giving me permission to embrace all my attachments, all the battles I consider personal because, for a little while longer, I belong to the future. Maybe detachment should not have been my real goal after all, not as a permanent state, at least.
“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers.”
Maybe this post is not about death after all. That is the incidental, or the underlying thought of my last few days. Our DNA is indeed programmed for extinction but we are also gifted with the ability to live as if we mattered. And maybe we do, as long as we can see a future, as long as we can have “intercourse with the world”.
And now, if you are finished reading, go ahead and press “delete”. Still not tempting fate.
Read the full essay here
All images C&S – Dr. Sack’s photo from his own website