The Power of Unconditional Love: How Oliver Sacks’s Beloved Aunt Shaped His Life and Inspired His Courageous Dance with Death
By Maria Popova
The history of creative culture is strewn with silent supporters whose unconditional love and encouragement have carried artists and thinkers to greatness. Although practical help can be enormously vitalizing — without the patronage of Nadezhda von Meck, Tchaikovsky may have never become Tchaikovsky; without the man who helped him quit his soul-sucking day-job to become a full-time writer, Bukowski may have died a postal worker — it is spiritual support that best sustains the creative spirit: What would young James Joyce have been without Ibsen or Maurice Sendak without Ursula Nordstrom or Albert Camus without his childhood teacher or Beckett without his one true believer?
One of the most touching testaments to this nourishing power of unconditional support comes from Oliver Sacks and his relationship with his aunt Lennie, which Dr. Sacks recounts with great affection in On the Move: A Life (public library) — his magnificent memoir of love, lunacy, and a life well lived, one of the most moving books I have ever read.
Lennie, born Helena Penina Landau in 1892, was one of his mother’s six sisters and the founder of London’s poetically named Jewish Fresh Air School for Delicate Children. “Delicate,” as Dr. Sacks explains, could refer to “anything from autism to asthma or simply ‘nerviness'” — but the school’s focus bespoke, most of all, Lennie’s keen sensitivity to difference and to children’s anguishing consciousness of being different, whatever the degree or direction of difference.
In that sense, young Oliver was certainly a “delicate” child, and a “delicate” young man, and it was Lennie’s unflinching support that carried him forward — toward becoming a writer and, above all, toward becoming himself. Where his mother had summarily rejected him, proclaiming that he was “an abomination” for being gay, Lennie accepted him unconditionally and enveloped him in her wholehearted love. Dr. Sacks writes:
I felt very loved by her, and I loved her intensely too, and this was a love without ambivalence, without conditionality. Nothing I could say could repel or shock her; there seemed no limit to her powers of sympathy and understanding, the generosity and spaciousness of her heart.
Although Lennie had been close with his mother throughout Oliver’s childhood, it wasn’t until he moved to Canada and they were separated by an ocean that his own closeness with Lennie — who was exactly forty years his senior — began to blossom through their frequent and sincere correspondence. She addressed his letters “Darling Bol,” and occasionally “Boliver,” which Dr. Sacks contrasts with his parents’ more formal and somber “Dear Oliver,” adding:
I did not feel she used the word “Darling” lightly.
Lennie — a woman who paid generous and loving attention to the world, noticing and noting the blooming almond trees outside her window — was also the first person in Dr. Sacks’s life to encourage his foray into writing, the very vocation he came to see as a pillar of his identity. (“I am a storyteller, for better and for worse,” he reflects in the closing pages of his autobiography, leaving no ambiguity as to his sense of purpose.) He recounts Lennie’s emboldening faith in his creative destiny:
She had felt, since my boyhood days, that I could and should be “a writer.”
So when Dr. Sacks made his first tentative steps into professional journalism in the 1960s, writing for a short-lived magazine called Seed, Lennie cheered on:
I am much enjoying Seed and like its whole format — the cover design, the luxurious paper, the lovely print, and the feeling for words that all you contributors have, whether grave or gay. . . . Will you be dismayed when I say how gloriously young (and of course vital) you all are.
In another letter, she further fertilized the spouting seed of the writing life:
You certainly seem to have found a more satisfying outlet for your restless and searching spirit. . . . I do miss you.
Eventually, 27-year-old Oliver sent her a number of pages from his travel journals, which he considered his first “pieces” — “self-conscious and precious in tone” but ones he hoped to publish one day. Lennie responded:
I received your amazing excerpts from your journals. I found the whole thing breathtaking. I was suddenly conscious that I was gasping physically.
When Dr. Sacks sank into a depression, Lennie was once again his steadfast support, writing in a letter:
You’ve got so much in your favour — brains, charm, presentability, a sense of the ridiculous, and a whole gaggle of us who believe in you.
But for Dr. Sacks, she was a gaggle of one, the nourishing power of her faith in him a potent source of spiritual vitality:
Len’s belief in me had been important since my earliest years, since my parents, I thought, did not believe in me, and I had only a fragile belief in myself.
Under the beams of Lennie’s warming love, that fragile belief was fortified into a lifelong dedication to writing. A few years later, Dr. Sacks published his first book, Migraine, followed by the now-legendary Awakenings, which was eventually adapted into the famous film of the same title starring Robin Williams as Dr. Sacks.
But it was Lennie’s exit from Dr. Sacks’s life that provided at least as vital an influence as her supportive presence.
When 86-year-old Lennie was admitted to the hospital for a simple operation, something went terribly wrong and she awoke hooked to an IV. Dr. Sacks writes:
When Lennie learned of this, she felt that life with intravenous nourishment and a spreading cancer was not worthwhile. She resolved to stop eating, though she would take water. My father insisted she be seen by a psychiatrist, but the psychiatrist said, “She is the sanest person I have ever seen. You must respect her decision.”
I flew to England as soon as I heard about this and spent many happy but infinitely sad days at Lennie’s bedside as she was growing weaker. She was always and totally herself despite physical weakness.
What a stark contrast this offers with Dr. Sacks’s earliest experience of losing a loved one — the death of his first great love from cancer at a young age was felt as a rupture, with a heartbreaking sense of absence, whereas his final days with Lennie were filled with a deep sense of communion and wholehearted presence.
I am reminded, too, of Albert Camus, who famously asserted that the decision whether to live or whether to die is the most important question of philosophy. But a more important question, perhaps — one at the heart of Lennie’s choice — is how to live and how to die.
Dr. Sacks captures this beautifully in his final letter to her from the end of 1978 — a letter he never knew if she read:
We have all of us been hoping so intensely that this month would see your return to health; but, alas! this was not to be.
My heart is torn when I hear of your weakness, your misery — and, now, your longing to die. You, who have always loved life, and been such a source of strength and life to so many, can face death, even choose it, with serenity and courage, mixed, of course, with the grief of all passing. We, I, can much less bear the thought of losing you. You have been as dear to me as anyone in this world.
I shall hope against hope that you may weather this misery, and be restored again to the joy of full living. But if this is not to be, I must thank you — thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.
Suddenly, a luminous thread reveals itself between Lennie’s courageous exit from life and Dr. Sacks’s own. “It is up to me now to choose how to live out the months that remain to me,” he wrote in his breath-stopping farewell to the world as he confronted his own terminal cancer diagnosis. “I have to live in the richest, deepest, most productive way I can… I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.”
As I reread and reread On the Move, hoping against hope that Dr. Sacks weathers mortality, I find myself filled with a profound sense of gratefulness for all that he has given us, for the innumerable ways in which he was elevated and illuminated our world, for everything that he is. And my soul echoes: “Thank you, once again, and for the last time, for living — for being you.”
Published May 26, 2015