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My letter from Oliver Sacks

Sacks’s short letter – sweeping, evocative, articulate – had come to me in early 1994 when, just a year out of my 20s, I was still trying to be a little of all of those things.

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    Oliver Sacks, the acclaimed neurologist and author, died on Sunday in his New York City home.
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There are occasions for blowing off the dust of decades. For me one came this morning.

My pre-digital piles of papers may remain chronically unfiled. But I walked into a stuffy upstairs room, tugged open a bi-fold closet door, shifted a few dated board games (“The Office” version of Clue?), and laid my hands on a letter that is 21 years old.

It might be the only letter I could that easily find.

The letter is from Oliver Sacks, M.D., and it was worth holding again. I had just heard of Dr. Sacks’s passing from my wife, who sat across from me at the glass table on our deck, sifting social media while I read the Sunday Times.

The letter, a heavy-bond relic laid perfectly flat at the top of a box, is messily typed on personal letterhead. There are strike-throughs – all x’s – and hand-written corrections scrawled in red felt-tip pen.

It is part apology, part genuine thanks, part surprisingly chummy riff by the brilliant neurologist on his own latest writings – there were photocopied enclosures – and exciting projects still to come. (“The Island of the Colorblind” was a few years from print.)

The letter is classic Sacks. He marvels, in his wildly focused way, at the prospect of visiting “an entire achromatopic culture…. I fiercely wonder what life is like for them.” He is the gentlemanly old British schoolboy: “We didn’t make it at all easy for you,” he writes.

That last bit was about access. Sacks’s short letter – sweeping, evocative, articulate – had come to me in early 1994 when, just a year out of my 20s, I was still trying to be a little of all of those things.

I was serially engaged as a profile writer. One winter week, Sacks was my quarry. While some well-known subjects had been accommodating and others maddeningly elusive, Sacks would somehow end up being both. After exchanges with his only moderately motivated assistants I had finally flown up to Toronto one cold morning to hear him speak to a small gathering about the healing power of music.

There was a brief time for questions. Sacks shyly, humorously held forth – a captivating introvert, a man who’d begun his career extracting myelin from earthworms. As he spoke, his inhibition turned to exhibition. I furiously took notes. 

From what this rumpled figure haltingly offered from the dais, and from the hundreds of column inches of copy I’d read about his work, I ground out my portrait of this doctor of the soul.

The pursuit, and the piece – and then Sacks’s letter to me – delivered an early-career lift. No one before him had followed up in that generous a way. Very few would after. Sacks congratulated me on having been able to “synthesize,” on conveying the details of his complex work, on having been “sympathetic.”  

Sacks had stopped typing only when his words had unevenly grazed the printed, page-ending line bearing his address, an apartment in lower Manhattan. There he’d squeezed in his signature, a kind of glyph, in that same streaky red pen.

 “So, on these odd adventures,” he wrote, “I move into my Sixties.”

Sacks’s body of work would enlarge greatly. Even during his illness he exuded gratitude and wonder. Today Oliver Sacks moved on again. For those of us who saw him up close, even at the briefest of intersections, this fierce wonderer won’t be forgotten. His words – the public, the personal – will bear re-reading.

 Clayton Collins is the Monitor’s Weekly Edition editor. He wrote about Oliver Sacks for Profiles magazine. The piece later ran in New Age Journal.

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