Oliver Sacks swam until he died. He believed swimming was instinctive, and that we must learn to walk but not to swim. Still, for many years he took a weekly lesson from a Russian coach, Slava, to perfect his stroke, and his backstroke was especially fine. In his revealing memoir “On the Move” (the title is borrowed from a poem by his friend Thom Gunn: “One is always nearer by not keeping still”), Oliver remembers swimming in a pond at Hampstead Heath on his fortieth birthday, where he first swam as a toddler with his father, who called swimming “the elixir of life.” The most placid, joyful moments of the memoir are when Oliver is swimming, because he is without “fear or fret,” and this gets him thinking. “Thoughts and images, sometimes whole paragraphs,” occur to him, and he must swim back to shore to hastily write them down.
I swam with Oliver in the Adirondacks in a cold green lake where he had swum for several decades. Age disappears when one is swimming, so it didn’t matter that I was twenty-five years younger. There is only the overwhelming sense of total immersion, of buoyancy, of well-being, and of the instinctual rightness of stroking through dark silky water, which on some days would throw us about like an ocean. When we swam, I wore a bright-orange cap and stayed a little ahead of him (“in the two-o’clock position”) so Oliver could see me. This was after he’d lost his sight in one eye because of a rare tumor, but before he learned that it had metastasized and occupied a third of his liver. It was the year he fell in love with the American writer Bill Hayes, who watched us from the dock as we swam out to an invisible rock at the point, where we treaded water and talked about shyness, his and mine. Volcanoes and jellyfish were far away, but Oliver wore a snorkel mask and put his face in the lake often to observe the small-mouth bass and brown trout wading in the transparent deep. Back on shore, he exclaimed, “Your head forms a resplendent orange globe!”
While writing, swimming, and eating meals together, we were becoming friends. This was at the Blue Mountain Center, a community of writers, artists, and activists, situated in the prettiest place I’ve ever swum. I hope I can swim there until I die, as Oliver did. Once I gave Oliver a bouquet of unopened jonquils, and he was so surprised when Billy put them in a vase and they blossomed. He said he found them miraculous because he’d thought I’d brought him green onions. This was the kind of imagination he had—mischievous, intelligent, sweet. Once when I gave him Cole’s Portuguese sardines in piri piri sauce, he opened a tin immediately and ate the sardines while standing at the kitchen counter. I think sardines were his secret to long life and acuteness of mind, or maybe they were just a leftover from his bachelor days. In my cupboard, I have several tins of Norwegian sardines in olive oil that Oliver presented to me. Once when we were sitting around the long table in his living room—which doubled as a desk, with one end covered in books, manuscripts, and pens—eating cut radishes and carrot sticks, Billy opened a bottle of rosé, and Oliver responded, “Well, at least it will be pretty to look at.” His square dinner plates were from the New York Botanical Garden and decorated with ferns. His housekeeper, Yolanda, disapproved of them because life, she insisted, was not square but round. Often, Oliver wore a T-shirt with a fern on it (he belonged to the American Fern Society), and if not a fern a periodic table of elements. Once, when he was showing me the difference in weight between a scrap of very heavy tungsten and another of much lighter magnesium, I told him I hoped my poems were like magnesium, and he approved. His desk was covered with metal objects, which I found very butch, and he liked this also. During my visits, Oliver always pulled books from the shelves that lined every wall of his big apartment, where he had lived for fifteen years or so, since moving from City Island. There was only a small selection of poetry (“I have difficulty reading poetry,” he admitted) and long shelves of Freud and Darwin. On one occasion, he took every book by Gunn and displayed them on a massage table for me to see, and, while I was admiring each tattered volume, he gave me one. He always gave me print-offs of his recent essays, too, from The New York Review of Books, where he was so proud to publish. Oliver loved his Montblanc fountain pens, and once, when he was showing me the gold nib of his favorite (and the “Midnight Blue” ink he preferred), I showed him my high school Parker fountain pen and asked with a smile, “What would Freud think of us, Oliver?”
A few months before Oliver died, a letter came in which he wrote, “I remember all our swims together—we are both water creatures.… My own future is very uncertain—I hope I can live tranquilly, but intensely, until the last drop of life-energy is gone. Thank God for Billy … and so much else. Love, Oliver.” Oliver was a man of W. H. Auden’s era, as well as our own, and this, in part, is what drew me to him. Despite his grand powers, he did not make me feel a lack of self-confidence. In Auden’s poem “Talking to Myself,” which is dedicated to Oliver, he looks at himself—and at age and deterioration—and hopes that when the time comes he’ll “bugger off quickly” (Auden’s phrase) before his mind is gone. I can still hear Oliver’s unmistakable voice calling to Billy and me in the kitchen cooking. He’s telling us to come immediately to the living room and to see the sun setting on the Hudson River, its rays splashing through the windows of the eighth floor apartment in the West Village.
Adapted from http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/swimming-with-oliver-sacks