Faced with death, Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011), devout nonbeliever with a knack for dispensing well-rationed thinking in the name of freedom, decided to write about it.
Hitchens’ Mortality was published posthumously. The essays and mental scratchings make Hitchens not only the journalist observing the event but also the actual event itself.1
When I described the tumor in my esophagus as a ‘blind, emotionless alien,’ I suppose that even I couldn’t help awarding it some of the qualities of a living thing. This at least I know to be a mistake: an instance of the pathetic fallacy (angry cloud, proud mountain, presumptuous little Beaujolais) by which we ascribe animate qualities to inanimate phenomena. To exist, a cancer needs to be a living organism, but it cannot ever become a living organism.
Hitchens struggles to maintain a public presence—how to have cancer in front of people, so to speak. His body fails him, and, thus, that is what invites comments. He comically, but aptly, calls for a book of cancer etiquette.2
It made me wonder if perhaps there was room for a shorthand book of cancer etiquette. This would apply to sufferers as well as to sympathizers. After all, I have hardly been reticent about my own malady. But nor do I walk around sporting a huge lapel button that reads, ASK ME ABOUT STAGE FOUR METASTASIZED ESOPHAGEAL CANCER, AND ONLY ABOUT THAT. In truth, if you can’t bring me news about that and that alone, and about what happens when lymph nodes and lung may be involved, I am not all that interested or that knowledgeable. One almost develops a kind of elitism about the uniqueness of one’s own personal disorder.
Morality, more than anything, knocks on the limits of consciousness. There is a part of Hitchens that is apart, looking at the cancer, knowing it exists, managing its care. And then, there is a body that is being affected by cancer. Then, there is the cancer itself, which is part of the body and alive but not living. The mind/body/cancer co-dependence and disunity is fundamental to Mortality’s narrative and to Hitchens’ understanding of what is happening to him.
As the treatment continues, Hitchens accepts that “I don’t have a body, I am a body.” His “self”—the one that writes the book, the one that reflects on the cancer, gives it animus—that self is indivisible from the body. When the body dies, everything dies with it.
Many have wondered where they exist when they die. Vladimir Nabokov thought we stepped through a wall of darkness. Jorge Luis Borges thought it was nothing. Simply nothing. Susan Sontag didn’t seem to know but fretted quite a bit about existential annihilation.
Christopher Hitchens didn’t know either. I’ve written about where we exist when we die, but it’s about where we exist to the living. Not to our dead self. Because there is no such thing.3
My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends. I can’t eat or drink for pleasure anymore, so when they offer to come it’s only for the blessed chance to talk. Some of these comrades can easily fill a hall with paying customers avid to hear them: They are talkers with whom it’s a privilege just to keep up.
Hitchens lost his voice, his ability to speak, but not his mind nor his expression.
Mortality concludes with lines scribbled without narrative but still in theme. Mortality. Hitchens reminds himself to review Wislawa Szymborska’s poetry about the body’s memory of pain, and he ends on a passage from Alan Lightman’s 1993 novel, Einstein’s Dreams, which essentially says that we must die to make room for those to come:4
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great-aunts … and so on […]. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. […] No one ever comes into his own […]. Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.
Mortality bestows freedom upon others. Freedom. There was nothing Hitchens believed in more.
One of my favorite books, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant, which Grant wrote up until the week he died, is full of humility and grace. Then, there is Oliver Sack’s Gratitude, which also looks back fondly at life lived. And of course, Maya Angelou’s last work, Letters to My Daughter, a warm, generous extension of self. And Mary Oliver’s collection of essays Upstream about finding and stepping into the eternal.