After nearly nine hours in the air and a week spent alone in a foreign country, the first words I saw when I opened my e-mail were a request for Oliver Sacks's contact information. These types of requests are common in a large newsroom -- chances are pretty good that someone at The Washington Post knows the gatekeeper of whatever phenom you need to talk to -- but my first reaction was a wave of self-deprecation, a streak of white-hot jealousy.
Who is interviewing Oliver Sacks, and why didn't I think of that story first?
But my frustration quickly morphed into something else, as my jet-lagged brain caught up to remind me what the e-mail was surely in reference to.
I never had the pleasure of meeting Sacks. I only even saw him speak publicly once. My grief at the news of his passing -- while palpable -- is nothing compared to what I'm sure his friends, family and partner must be feeling.
But I want to tell you what Sacks meant to me, because it's what he meant to a lot of us. And -- if you've had the misfortune of being unaware of his writing until Monday -- what he'll soon mean to you.
I first read Sacks's work exactly a decade ago, when I was 13 and studying cognitive psychology at an academic summer camp. My class read "The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat," a collection of essays recounting the neurologist's experience with some of his patients. The stories were incredible. But Sacks didn't exploit the gee-whiz factor of the tales he was weaving. He did not gawk at the strange, even fantastical symptoms of his patients. He had an uncanny ability to share the core of a patient's experience, producing awe in his reader without turning his patients into sideshows.
The brain is so, so strange he seemed to say with every line. And isn't it marvelous?
I was captivated and have been ever since.
What distinguished Sacks from other neurologists, from other writers, wasn't just the skill with which he told his tales. It was the way his spirit -- and his deep, genuine empathy -- shone through on the page.
Toward the end of his life, given a cancer prognosis that told him time was running out, Sacks wrote on his own mortality with the same dignity he'd always allowed his subjects. In February, he wrote on his diagnosis for the New York Times:
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.
And just weeks ago, he shared more of himself with us:
And now, 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.
I am not in the habit of having heroes. Heroes, being human, will often disappoint you. But Sacks was a hero worth having. And without his writing -- the way it grabbed me 10 years ago and refused to let go -- I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing. I wouldn't have been on that plane, having spent a week following Stephen Hawking around and trying to understand black holes.
I would still love science, and I would still love storytelling, but without Sacks's work I have no idea what that would mean for me.
A few years back, when I first told my college adviser that I wanted to pursue science writing, her first response was to turn and pull a copy of Sacks's "Uncle Tungsten" from her shelf.
I could go on for a long time.
Instead, I'll just say this: Sacks told stories with a level of intellectual and emotional depth that most of us can never hope to muster. I will always, always be sad that he couldn't have told even more of them.
"Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure," Sacks wrote in February.
Sacks invited us all on his enormous adventures, and for that privilege I will always, always be grateful.