Oliver Sacks: My Periodic Table

Oliver Sacks in The New York Times:

SacksA few weeks ago, in the country, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky “powdered with stars” (in Milton’s words); such a sky, I imagined, could be seen only on high, dry plateaus like that of Atacama in Chile (where some of the world’s most powerful telescopes are). It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heavens’ beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience — and death. I told my friends Kate and Allen, “I would like to see such a sky again when I am dying.” “We’ll wheel you outside,” they said. I have been comforted, since I wrote in February about having metastatic cancer, by the hundreds of letters I have received, the expressions of love and appreciation, and the sense that (despite everything) I may have lived a good and useful life. I remain very glad and grateful for all this — yet none of it hits me as did that night sky full of stars.

I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death. And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket.

At the start of the year, in the weeks after I learned that I had cancer, I felt pretty well, despite my liver being half-occupied by metastases.

More here.