For my dear friend, Oliver Sacks.
August 30, 2015
Oliver Sacks was a dear friend with a brilliant brain and the road he traveled was not a familiar one. We will all miss this elegant, generous man who spoke in a language we have never heard before.
He was a hunter following the hidden pathways of the brain in his search for answers, cures, and reasons for diseases known and unknown.
Oliver and I met in 1991 when we were invited to address the U.S. Senate Committee On Aging. Oliver, who had a sly sense of humor, said, " Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I first want to express my gratitude for being allowed to testify before you today. I submitted some written testimony, but I think I may wing it."
And Senator Harry Reid replied, "That testimony that has been submitted in writing will be made part of the record. Please do wing it."
Over the next hour or so Oliver and I spoke about rhythm and music, and their remarkable powers to heal and influence the brain. Oliver provided patient stories and scientific research.
He explained that although medicine cannot offer most of his patients any decisive cure, their neurological functioning, no less than their morale, can beimmensely improved by music therapy. He referenced some patients who were featured in his 1973 book, "Awakenings," (which was later made into an award winning film starring Robin Williams).
I can still hear Oliver's riveting closing statement from our visit to Congress. "In summary, though the nervous system is sometimes compared to a computer, I think it is much more like an orchestra or a symphony. I think we are musical through and through, from the lowest levels of rhythm in our nerve cells to the highest levels."
Oliver and I also shared a deep Grateful Dead connection. One of his patients was a man named Greg who was unable to store new memories after a brain tumor destroyed his frontal lobe. Oliver discovered that the music of the Grateful Dead was able to penetrate the communication barrier ever so slightly and helped Greg reconnect with himself and his family. There is a movie adapted from Oliver's essay, "The Last Hippie" called "The Music Never Stopped" that I highly recommend viewing.
When he learned he had terminal cancer Oliver handled the news with a grace I can't fathom. He wrote a moving piece in the New York Times where he shared his deepest feelings about death's approach. Read the piece here.
We will all profoundly miss our warm friend, Oliver Sacks. Indeed we are winging it now, as we face the future without his guidance. His lasting influence on me, and on all of us, is immeasurable.
I agree with Oliver -- we are all musical through and through.