Mortality: Christopher Hitchens’s last published book, a collection of honest writings on his confrontation with illness and death

Christopher Hitchens, Mortality

Published in Australia by Allen & Unwin in 2012, 104p

Christopher_Hitchens_2008viaWikipedia
Christopher Hitchins. Photo via wikipedia.com

I know I will never be prepared to face death; but if I had to, I would like to do it the Hitchens’s way: dying but living. In 2010 Christopher Hitchens, writer, journalist, religious and literary critic, was in his hotel room during the US book tour for his memoir Hitch-22, when he found out he had cancer.

He was 62 and had esophagus cancer; just like his father who had died of the same disease. But Hitchens couldn’t die; he had plans made for at least a decade. He wanted to read, to speak, to debate, to drink, to spend time with his family and his friends, no matter he had just landed in “Tumorville”, a new land with a language of its own.

Battling cancer, Hitchens wrote about his shock, his denial, his hope, his pain and ultimately his acceptance of death. The book is a collection of seven essays that initially appeared in Vanity Fair while the final chapter consists of fragments written just before the author’s death. He continuously hoped he wouldn’t have to leave the party early.

The absorbing fact about being mortally sick is that you spend a good deal of time preparing yourself to die with some modicum of stoicism (and provision for loved ones), while being simultaneously and highly interested in the business of survival. This is a distinctly bizarre way of ‘living’ – lawyers in the morning and doctors in the afternoon – and means that one has to exist even more than usual in a double frame of mind. The same is true, it seems, of those who pray for me.

An atheist, Hitchens was encouraged by an enormous number of friends to fight and beat cancer but he was also vehemently accused by his opponents who considered his hard times were a punishment from God. He continued his work, enjoying his life as much as he could although he sometimes wondered if there shouldn’t be written a book of cancer etiquette. Humorously he recalls an episode with a woman while meeting his readers:

She: I was so sorry to hear you had been ill.

Me: Thank you for saying so.

She: A cousin of mine had cancer.

Me: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.

She: (As the line of customers lengthens behind her) Yes, in the liver.

Me: That’s never good.

She: But it went away, after the doctors had told him it was incurable.

Me: Well, that’s what we all want to hear.

She: (With those farther back in line now showing signs of impatience) Yes. But then it came back, much worse than before.

Me: Oh, how dreadful.

She: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.

Me: (Beginning to search for words)…

She: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.

Me: (Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing “of course”)…

She: And his whole immediate family disowned him. He died virtually alone.

Me: Well, I hardly know what to…

She: Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I understand exactly what you are going through.

His lucidity and intellectualized perspective on death are amazing. And it was not pain that weakened him (although he said chemotherapy was a torture) but the fact he couldn’t control his body anymore. Physical degradation meant losing his voice, himself, his identity.

Most despond-inducing and alarming of all, so far, was the moment when my voice suddenly rose to a childish (or perhaps piglet-like) piping squeak. It then began to register all over the place, from a gruff and husky whisper to a papery, plaintive bleat. And at times it threatened, and now threatens daily, to disappear altogether. I had just returned from giving a couple of speeches in California, where with the help of morphine and adrenaline I could still successfully ‘project’ my utterances, when I made an attempt to hail a taxi outside my home — and nothing happened. I stood, frozen, like a silly cat that had abruptly lost its meow. I used to be able to stop a New York cab at thirty paces. I could also, without the help of a microphone, reach the back row and gallery of a crowded debating hall. And it may be nothing to boast about, but people tell me that if their radio or television was on, even in the next room, they could always pick out my tones and know that I was ‘on’ too.

Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs. In common with everybody else, I have played versions of the youthful ‘Which would you rather?’ game, in which most usually it’s debated whether blindness or deafness would be the most oppressive. But I don’t ever recall speculating much about being struck dumb. (In the American vernacular, to say ‘I’d really hate to be dumb’ might in any case draw another snicker.) Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’

Christopher Hitchens died in December 2011. As lucid and stoic as he could be.

I don’t have a body, I am a body.

Complement Mortality with Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an honest discourse on family and loss.

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