Swimming with Oliver Sacks


In Memoriam

Oliver Sacks died yesterday at eighty-two.


Oliver Sacks swimming in Rhinebeck, NY, in July 2015. Photo: Bill Hayes

I met Oliver Sacks at the Blue Mountain Center, an artist and writers residency in the Adirondacks, where we spent August of 2012. The room I was assigned had a pretty view out onto Eagle Lake, but it was tiny—there was no way I could pace in it, and I needed to pace, so I disappeared into the mountains several times a day. I walked and walked, got lost in the pouring rain and knocked on the cabin doors of strangers, hoping to be adopted, maybe. Instead I was given haphazard, passionless directions back to the colony. While I was feeling the dark of the woods pressing heavily on my shoulders, Oliver was writing to the sounds of the loons on the lake. He was seventy-nine then.

My first encounter with him was through The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and Other Clinical Tales. I was a teenager in Germany when I read it, and the book was a revelation. Literary nonfiction was virtually unknown in Germany at the time. You were either a fiction writer, with literary skills and liberties, or you were a nonfiction writer, basically an anal academic who puts one word after the other with no regards to beauty or passion. But The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat was true and character-driven and stunning. Sacks wrote with curiosity and enthusiasm about the complex inner worlds of people who had endured and adjusted to extraordinary circumstances. A few years before I read Sacks’s book, I had a car accident in a foreign country that almost left me paralyzed. For a long time, while I was bedridden and in pain, I couldn’t see beyond the injury. “Neurology’s favorite word is deficit, denoting an impairment or incapacity of neurological function,” Sacks writes in his book. “But it must be said from the outset that a disease is never a mere loss or excess—that there is always a reaction, on the part of the affected organism or individual, to restore, to replace, to compensate for and to preserve its identity, however strange the means may be … ” Sacks’s book opened up worlds to me.

Oliver’s arrival at the colony had been foreshadowed in a desperate little scene by one of the residents. We were prompted to choose a date on the calendar taped to the kitchen door indicating when we wanted to present our work. One morning, the Artist came up to me. Her friend—she must have used the word at least eight times in our brief interaction—was coming the day I was scheduled to read. Could we switch? It was so important to her to have her friend see her presentation that I agreed.

The “friend was Oliver, of course, whom I saw for the first time at the large dining-room table. He was wearing a T-shirt that said EAT MORE KALE, and he was surrounded by admirers, the Artist among them. He looked something like an old tree swarmed by a colony of bees. I observed the scene from the other end of the large table, cringing, but Oliver remained calm and patient. He seemed polite, leaning in to hear his fellow residents and responding in short, quiet sentences. He wasn’t aloof but mindful: cautious, maybe.

Yes, I, too, wanted to talk to Oliver—or Ollie, as the Artist called him to show their presumed closeness—but to me the only reasonable option was to stay away. That seemed like the biggest favor I could do for him during the weeks we spent under the same roof. I broke my unspoken promise only once, after dinner, when I overheard a porch conversation about his book Hallucinations, which was then soon to be published. He sat in a chair looking out on the lake, his admirers gathered around him. Did he still have hallucinations, I asked him, and when? It took us a while to understand each other because I continued to keep my distance. Billy, his partner, “translated” our brief conversation. Not really, Oliver said. Right before falling asleep sometimes. I soon excused myself and went back to my tiny little room.

A few days later Oliver read a scene from his forthcoming book to the group. He described talking to a spider in his apartment, after experimenting with a drug called Artane. (“We had a conversation about analytic philosophy, a rather technical conversation.”) I was embarrassed because I felt like I should have known back then on the porch that Oliver was talking about drug-induced hallucinations. I was even a bit disappointed. I had loved LSD in my early twenties and hoped Oliver would help me find a way to hallucinate, to lose myself, without it.

Every morning a group of us, including Oliver, would swim across Eagle Lake. Our host, Harriet, insisted on accompanying us in her little metal boat. The motorboats that in recent years had taken over the tranquil lake could not be trusted; it would be easier for them to spot a little boat powered by a very tall and assertive woman than the school of little fish that we were. Not every resident joined us, but Harriet, Oliver, the Artist, and I were there every morning. Oliver wore a bright red bathing cap. The Artist was decked out in a swimsuit covering half her body, goggles, bathing cap, flippers, and a Styrofoam board to hold on to. She slathered a thick layer of sun block on her face. I wore a black twenties-style swimsuit.

Oliver was still a strong swimmer, but he needed guidance because of his bad eyesight. On most days his partner, Billy, would drive up to the lake, open the car door for him, and guide him into the shallow water. Holding on to each other, Billy and Oliver would proceed to deeper waters before fully immersing themselves. Billy wore a bright green bathing cap so Oliver could easily see and follow him. Considering the difficulties Oliver had walking on land, I was amazed at the ease with which he swam. (“A disease is never a mere loss or excess … there is always a reaction… to restore, replace, to compensate.”) On land, his body seemed old and frail, but in the water it was young again.

One day Billy wasn’t there, and someone asked for a volunteer to stay close to Oliver and help him find his way across the lake and back. While I was still pondering whether I was fit for the challenge, the Artist screamed, “I’ll do it!” Oliver seemed indifferent. In the water he’d be strong and on his own no matter what. The way to the other shore went without further incident. Oliver was in his element, his muscular arms pulling evenly through the choppy water. While some of us rested our bodies on a gathering of rocks in the water enjoying the morning sun, Oliver stayed in the water. Then we swam back. When I reached the boathouse, I looked around to find Oliver and the Artist. They had drifted off toward the adjoining Blue Mountain Lake. The Artist was struggling to stay on course, taking Oliver on a journey about three times as long as usual. Oliver continued to swim methodically and peacefully. I waited by the boathouse, concerned.

In the mornings, when we rested on the other shore before making our way back to the boathouse, our gazes often lingered on Oliver. I don’t remember how it came up, but one time he started reciting the periodic table. At first he just listed the elements with their correlating numbers. One—hydrogen, two—helium, three—lithium, four—beryllium, five—boron, six—carbon, and so on. A dragonfly, its body glistening in metallic colors, landed on his swim cap. We were excited and some of us pointed it out, but Oliver was oblivious, or pretended to be. Twenty-two—titanium, twenty-three—vanadium … At some point he announced that he was, at seventy-nine, gold. We asked Oliver to tell us what we were. I was thirty-nine, yttrium, a transition metal. Neither fish nor flesh; no match for gold. Thinking of him now, it seems to me Oliver will always be gold, even if, by the time his life ended, he’d technically graduated to lead. If we ever meet again, on the other shore, I hope to have transformed from a transition metal to something more steady.

Sabine Heinlein is the author of Among Murderers: Life After Prison.