I've been looking for a way into reading Oliver Sacks.
When his last essays were published in The New York Times I was still learning to live with the sudden, abrupt death of my father. I knew that Sacks had been diagnosed, sentenced really, and that his death was imminent. My father's death was so recent, as if it was still happening again and again, I couldn't imagine delving into the last days of another man. There's a line in Hayden Carruth's great and wise poem "Regarding Chainsaws" that expressed all this better than I can:
I quit stopping by to see old Stan, and I
don't feel so good about that neither. But my mother
was having her strokes then. I figured
one person coming apart was as much
as a man can stand. Then Stan was taken away
to the nursing home, and then he died.
My father had come apart and that was more than I could stand. Then Oliver Sacks was diagnosed, and then he died. His auto-biography On The Move came out and I heard all about it but couldn't get myself to read it. Through proximity on the calendar, his life and death had become too connected with the life and too soon death of my father.
All my life I've been around death. Dad was a funeral director and when I was ten he bought the funeral home in which I mostly grew up. That is, I spent most of my childhood there and I mostly, but not totally, grew up. The dead lay in their boxes in the funeral home which was connected by three separate doors to our house. The living were there too, both my family and the families of those who had lost their mother, father, and God help us their children. I helped Dad in the funeral home and sometimes closed the lids on the caskets before they were taken to the cemetery and buried or to the crematorium and incinerated.
That contact provided me with far less understanding of death than might be expected. I accepted the logic of it, but death lives mostly beyond the bounds of logic. My only real experience with the fullness of death was when, as a young man, I held my dog while the veterinarian put her down. It took far too long for her breathing to stop and her eyes never did close. Only when the vet said that she was gone did I allow myself to break down, staring into her brown eyes. Even then it was a halting and broken kind of grief that didn't heal me. It left me wanting, needing really, some way to get through.
When my father died, I never really cried or got to any release of all that terrible pressure, much as I tried. Grief didn't consume me so much as rise up around my body like a black fog, an almost liquid through which I found it difficult but not impossible to move. I wanted it to be worse. I wanted to break down, but grief didn't disable me other than when I was alone at Wegmans. There, for some reason, I pushed the cart haphazardly, walking across the whole store to frozen foods for one item, remembering something I needed to get in produce all the way back. I walked the length and breadth of that store in a tunneled fog, the periphery of my vision lost, my way forward clouded. It was as if Wegmans was a kind of purgatory.
It became the space where I was no longer in a world without my father but neither was I gone from the world of my wife, children, and family. I was between. For months I visited Wegmans by myself to be lost there for an hour, crossing and recrossing the store as if looking for something or mapping it for some kind of crossing. I visited Dad. I wondered about the nature of life. I bought bananas, frozen pizza, and six-packs of beer.
It's been almost a year since Wegmans has felt like anything but a grocery store. It has been three and a half years since my father died. It's just three years since Oliver Sacks died, and today I borrowed a slim library book containing four of his essays. Gratitude it is called and I am grateful for having read it, for still thinking of my father dearly but no longer with such a burden of sorrow and loss, and for the idea that I may finally be ready to hear more from Oliver Sacks. I'm ready to hear what he might have to tell me about living, a business in which I'm still occupied even as he and Dad have moved on from that into what I can't even begin to imagine.