Thank you Oliver Sacks.

I’ve just read the article published in the New York Times on the 19th of February where  Oliver Sacks announced that he had been diagnosed with terminal cancer.       (My Own Life.)  It’s a beautiful piece of writing- moving and provocative, hopeful and inspiring. But then, hasn’t Oliver Sacks always been challenging, moving, inspirational?

Oliver Sacks, Professor of Neurology at New York University.

Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

I first heard of Oliver Sacks when “The Man who Mistook his Wife for a Hat” was published- an account of his work as a neurologist with patients living with difficult and rare conditions,  such as Tourette’s Syndrome, Autism and Parkinsonism.  Amazing stories about the resilience, courage and resourcefulness of these people, examples of our capacity to change and adapt. I knew little about such conditions, so this book was eye-opening.

“Awakenings” is probably his other most well known work. It’s an account of his work with a group of patients suffering sleeping sickness, years after there had been a pandemic of the disease. He was able to wake them, briefly. A sad and amazing story- later made into a movie starring Robert de Niro and Robin Williams.

His article begins

“A month ago I felt that I was in good, even robust, health. At 81, I still swim 1.6 kilometres a day. But my luck has run out….now I am face to face with dying”.

He continues

“It is up to me to choose how to live out the months that remain to me. I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can….”

I could take that statement as the way I want to live my whole life.

And…

“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. But there will be time, too, for some fun (and even some silliness, as well)…..

I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have been given something in return;…

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.”

IMG_0327Please, I beg you to read the article. Like me, you will be moved, challenged and inspired. What I would say if I received this diagnosis? What would I want for the time remaining me? How would I feel? How would I sum up my life?

How would you sum up your life? What would you want for the time remaining to you?

What better than to be able to say

“I cannot pretend I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have given much and I have been given something in return…above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking anima, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”

Reflections on the death of a beloved animal

Have you ever made the decision that it’s time to end the suffering and misery of an animal in your care?

Bear loved boxesYesterday I took my cat Bear to the vet to discuss his deteriorating condition and consider my options. We decided it was time to end his suffering and he was put to sleep.

I hate having such power and I love having such power. I hate being the one who makes the decision, the one with that ultimate power. I question my motives: Am I choosing to do this now because I don’t want to watch him vomiting any more? Is he really fine enough to enjoy more days of sitting In the sun and sleeping on my lap? How do I tell when it is time, when it is a kindness to end misery? Is it a convenience to me? Am I tired of cleaning up after him? Am I doing this for myself or am I doing this for him?   I wrestle with the conflict.

But I love being able to choose to end his pain, his yowling as he’s about to vomit, his episodes of projectile vomiting, his scratching and biting when I inadvertently touch painful areas, his weight loss, his of eating of kitty litter crystals, his look of misery and longsuffering, his decline… and I love being able to give freedom from suffering to a creature I have loved and cared for.

Does ultimate power always come with an equal knowledge of its awesome responsibilities? I hope it does. This is no decision to be taken lightly. I cannot imagine what it would be like to be faced with such power and choice over the life of a loved human. If it is this difficult with an animal how could I possibly ever contemplate a similar situation with a dearly loved friend?

A few weeks ago a friend said to me when I told him Bear was dying, “Well, that’s why you don’t have pets. There’s all the grief when you lose them.”

My response was: “That’s why you do have pets. They teach us to grieve as well as love.”

Jolly beiong persuaded to look at the camera.I learnt this years ago as I loved and cared for a dog from puppyhood to old age. He offered participation in the progress of life in a shortened version and I realized children as well as myself, could learn what they would later experience with their most cherished, treasured human beings.  If we are to love then we will experience pain and grief and loss. We can’t have one without the other. I used to fear grief and I suppressed it without even being aware. I feared it would overwhelm me, that I would not survive it. My dog showed me I could grieve. I could love without reservation, feel the loss of that creature and survive. And now I cherish his memory. Never would I regret having shared his life, and the same with Bear- I received far more than I gave.

Angie, my shared co-living partner and the other person who has known Bear best, was here yesterday and so could come to the vet’s for our final visit. She said that Bear had had a good life-  an abandoned cat who hung around my house eventually staying to become part of the household. I thought about this. Yes, I hope he had a good life, but more than that he was a precious gift… and I thought some more.

I will die happy if my life is a precious gift for even one person.

an ending.What more could we hope for?