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Monday, January 27, 2014

Christopher Hitchens: Mortality

I always wanted to go to one of Christopher Hitchens' legendary dinner parties, which ended thusly, according to Carol Blue, the wife he absolutely adored, and vice-versa (this from the Telegraph)"

"At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny 20 minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. 'How good it is to be us,' he would say in his perfect voice."

Hitch died of esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011.  No matter how you feel about Hitch (there's a few things he did that I definitely don't agree with, but I loved his brillant writing and acerbic wit), his final book, Mortality, brought me to both tears and laughter so raucous that I got a tap on my bedroom door whilst reading the book, and a tremulous query as to whether I was okay.

He pulls no punches in Mortality--Hitch woke one morning unable to take more than tiny, shallow breaths, and said that he "felt shackled to (his) own corpse."  The emergency squad that took him to the hospital seemed, in retrospect, to be "a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” He called this land of malady "Tumortown," and said that "In whatever kind of a 'race' life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist."

"Compassionate" Christians said that Hitch got cancer of the "mouth" (not true) because he blasphemed so much with it.  His response was that his mouth was not the only part of his body with which he had blasphemed.  I wonder why any of the aforementioned Christians had not the human kindness to just sit down with Hitch and just let him talk about what he was enduring, how he felt about leaving his wife and children, his life truncated when he was absolutely looking forward to his future, thinking he had many years left.  I think it's because too many people are cowards and traitors when faced with someone who has a serious illness and avoid them because they cannot "handle" it.  One wonders what these folks will do when they, too, become "finalists" because they then can't help but "handle" things.  Morbid as it is, we are all food for worms and passengers on the same sinking boat.  The trick is to try and fully enjoy the voyage until the ship finally hits the iceberg.

Hitch's take on alternative remedies is about the same as mine (I've been told to give up my own lupus chemo for a raw foods diet, read certain tomes that promise me if I am in a state acceptable to the Lord or other deities, my illness will be cured, etc).  I tell people that my chemo has made me feel better than I ever have in 20 years of having lupus, so much so that I am willing to take my meds for the rest of my life, even with the risk of lymphoma and the chance of being as bald as Dr. Evil.  Nobody lives forever, and I'd rather go out being able to dance and sing, and eventually travel, and write, and see Thistle graduate from college.

As for people telling him to "battle" his illness, Hitch nails what it is actually like to experience a life-threatening malady and the experience of chemotherapy (I take chemo in pill form, but I felt the same way--my chemo pills are so toxic that most people are not allowed to handle them with bare hands):

“I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient. Allow me to inform you, though, that when you sit in a room with a set of other finalists, and kindly people bring a huge transparent bag of poison and plug it into your arm, and you either read or don't read a book while the venom sack gradually empties itself into your system, the image of the ardent solider is the very last one that will occur to you. You feel swamped with passivity and impotence: dissolving in powerlessness like a sugar lump in water.”

I greatly appreciated greatly the mordant wit and depth of honesty in Mortality.  Hitch goes into "that good night" with his usual brilliancy, flipping off the Grim Reaper even whilst slipping on the proverbial banana peel.

This might be a hard book to read for some, but for those of us who have found ourselves closer to the finish line of this life than others, it is a particularly resonant book.