At three years old, when our son became thrilled with the periodic chart (thank you Toca Boca), I wasn’t sure it would last. Now at five-his obsession with the elements remains.
As expat New Yorkers down in Melbourne, Australia-we live and breathe RadioLab podcasts. In one special episode-about a month ago-I learned Dr. Oliver Sacks loved the periodic chart so much he had one in every room: even his bathroom. He had a bedspread, a T-shirt and a prized possession-a wooden box from Russia with real examples of each of the elements inside its own wooden cube.
I told our son right away.
As a child who carries a laminated TocaBoca element chart (above) to school every day, who hangs the periodic table up in whatever city we’re in, who wears an element T-shirt to bed and who desperately wants a periodic coffee mug to match-he insisted we had to go to Russia right away. We need our own wooden periodic table box immediately.
“Why don’t we look up some photos of Dr. Sacks’ table first?” I offered.
We searched online to find photos of Dr. Sacks with all his periodic accoutrement. His kind face with his white beard was all very compelling to a five-year-old. I explained how curious Dr. Sacks is and how kind- how he uses his beautiful mind to help human beings understand themselves better. I explained his gift for story telling, his ability to weave the scientific terminology of Neuroscience into mythological tales. I also explained how Dr. Sacks is sick and will die soon.
He was very curious about this, “Is he scared? Where will he go? Maybe he’ll get better before he passes away.”
My husband and I suggested he could make a video for Dr. Sacks. He could explain how he too enjoys the periodic table. Maybe that will give him some joy in his final days. Of course, we had no idea how we would send Dr. Sacks a video, but the process of making it seemed life affirming, death affirming, periodic chart affirming.
We dawdled. My husband shot some video. Life interrupted.
On 28 August my son said, “We should send Oliver Sacks that video. I think he already passed away. I think he’s going to pass away in August. Or maybe he’ll get better.”
Before my husband went to work on the 30th-Sunday morning here, but Saturday evening in the Northern Hemisphere-he said, “I put that Oliver Sacks video together. It’s really sweet. I don’t know where you’re going to send it, but-it’s there.”
Later that Sunday I pointed out Dr. Sacks’ autobiography in the window of a book shop.
“Oliver Sacks?” my son grinned, “You should buy that right now!”
I didn’t, but as he was very much on my mind, I tucked the boy into bed that night and opened the video.
What should I do with this?
I opened my browser and there smiling out from the New York Times was Oliver Sacks who had passed away thirty minutes before I sat down. The little man was still awake, so I told him.
“I told you he was going to pass away in August,” he said, “can I see his picture?”
He studied it very closely and smiled, because how could you do anything but when you look at this photo?
“Even though Dr. Sacks never saw your video,” I asked, “do you think you’ll think of him when you study your periodic table?”
He beamed and nodded.
And so Dr. Sacks-wherever you may be-we’ll put this video out into the universe along with you.
Thank you. We could ask for no finer role model.