Donald H. Black, born in Brooklyn in 1922, served three years in the Army Air Forces as a B-17 radio operator in World War II. With the GI Bill, he graduated from New York University with a BS degree in finance in 1951. He retired in 1992 from a 50-year career in commercial banking. (See photo at right from 1963 upon his promotion to vice president of Bankers Trust Company in New York City.)

Black, who has logged more than 5,000 hours as a private pilot, took up hiking and cycling in his retirement, pedaling some 40,000 miles between the ages of 74 and 93.

"I’ve read everything Doris Kearns Goodwin has written, since we have so much in common. We were both born in Brooklyn, raised in Rockville Centre, attended South Side High School there, and had Louise Austin for history class.

She grew up to be a highly regarded historian and writer. I grew up. Oh yeah, she’s 21 younger, so we went to the same school together at different times."

Last thoughts: Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks

By Donald H. Black

Written in 2016

It was such a little book I was going to pass it by. But then, I thought, don’t judge a book by its cover -- or its size.

 

I extracted it from its nesting place between two larger neighbors on the shelf, and read the blurb on the inside of its dust jacket:

 

During the last few months of his life, Oliver Sacks wrote a set of essays in which he movingly explored his feelings about completing a life and coming to terms with his own death. “It is the fate of every human being,” he wrote, “to be a unique individual, to find his own path, to live his own life, to die his own death.”

 

Together, these four essays form an ode to the uniqueness of each human being and to gratitude for the gift of life.

Reading this, several things ran through my mind.

Oliver Sacks, a British neurologist, naturalist, historian of science, and best-selling author of many books, including Musicophilia, Awakenings, and The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat.

First off, I, too, am in my closing days, so I feel an affinity for someone writing about that stage of life. Secondly, my principal emotion is gratitude for the gift of life, to use the author’s expression. Since he and I regard our days on this planet the same way, I was attracted to what else he had to say. Thirdly, from time to time I’ve attempted to describe “the view from up here” to the recipients of my writings. I’ve found it difficult. It’s too easy to appear to be saying “woe is me,” to be complaining about pain when others have it worse, to sound morbid by expressing readiness for the next stage, or to be unappreciative of the good fortune that has gilded my existence.

 

It would be interesting, I decided, to see how Oliver Sacks, “an acclaimed author” (and M.D.) handled it.

I should explain that Dr. Sacks had been diagnosed with incurable cancer at the age of 81 and given an estimate of the time he had remaining, whereas I’m still plugging along at 93 with an unknown but limited number of days ahead. The treatments he received caused some of the same symptoms I experience as the result of aging. He wrote “I have pervasive tiredness with sudden exhaustion if I overdo things. I am beginning to feel a little short of breath.  I continue to exercise daily, but for briefer periods.”

He continued, “A few weeks ago, far from the lights of the city, I saw the entire sky powdered with stars.  It was this celestial splendor that suddenly made me realize how little time, how little life, I had left. My sense of the heaven’s beauty, of eternity, was inseparably mixed for me with a sense of transience – of death.”  

The reason I have difficulty describing the final stage of life is that I lack Dr. Sack’s way with words. A man of science, he had the soul of a poet. My words, attempting to express the same emotions, are mundane and uninspiring.

I wish I had written this:

“I cannot pretend I am not without fear. [I don’t feel fear, but the rest of the quotation resonates with me]. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and have given something in return; I have read and travelled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. 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.”

There are four short essays in the book, which, incidentally, is titled Gratitude (published in 2015). It took me only an hour or so to read them all. I’m glad I decided to bring it home from the library. In the book’s forward, the editors who compiled the essays wrote, "Dr. Sacks celebrates the pleasures of old age without dismissing the frailties of body and mind that can come with it."

That’s what I’ve been trying to do. Thanks, Dr. Sacks.

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