Christopher Hitchens died a year ago on December 15, 2011, after suffering from esophageal cancer. He fought the disease off for over a year, before succumbing to his inevitable fate—the same fate that awaits all of us. It's no fun to think about, yet Hitchens, a brilliant writer and thinker, did that and more.
He spent his final months writing about the process of facing death; the essays that came from his writing have been posthumously published into a poignant memoir called Mortality.
"It's normally agreed that the question 'How are you today?' doesn't put you on your oath to give a full or honest answer. So when asked these days, I tend to say something cryptic like, 'A bit early to say.' (If it's the wonderful staff at my oncology clinic who inquire, I sometimes go so far as to respond, 'I seem to have cancer today.')"
-Christopher Hitchens, 'Mortality'
I don't think it's a stretch to say one of my great regrets is I'll never have an opportunity to meet Hitchens in person, especially since I feel like I've come to know him so well these past few years. He was smug in a charming sort of way. He had a robust air of confidence about him, palpable through the TV screen. His confidence, it seemed, was fueled by his intellect. He was a man who knew things—a lot of things. And, of course, he was a man who knew he knew things, which for some might of made him insufferable, but, for me, made him completely engaging.
He first came to my attention when he was a panelist on Real Time with Bill Maher. I forget the exact year, but I know it was nearly a decade ago, as he was speaking favorably of President George W. Bush's decision to go to war in Iraq. I assumed that, since I didn't agree with America going to war in Iraq, I wouldn't agree with anything else Hitchens had to say. It was a knee-jerk reaction; one, it seems, most Americans have about anybody who holds opinions contrary to their own. But, as Hitchens spoke, it became clear to me that he was thoughtful, highly intelligent, and had intellectually grounded reasons for believing what he did. I appreciated that about him.
I don't remember anything else he talked about that night; I do, however, remember liking him a great deal. After that, I started noticing Hitchens everywhere, from cable news programs to the shelves of Barnes & Noble. I picked up his book God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. Hitchens, if you weren't already aware, was one of the worlds most well-known and outspoken atheists. The title of the book itself was indicative of Hitchens spirit, which was to speak in plain and unapologetic language about issues that most folks feel a need to tiptoe around. And, of course, when reading the book, I came to find exactly what I expected: thoughtful and intellectual prose about a topic in which Hitchens was exceedingly informed, more so than most of the people who would assume him to be wrong.
In Mortality, Hitchens spends a fair amount of time reflecting on matters of religion and how they intersect with matters of death. He shares an entry from an unamed website in which the messenger writes: "Who else feels Christopher Hitchens getting terminal throat cancer [sic] was God's revenge for him using his voice to blaspheme him?" It goes on to say that Hitchens would "writhe in agony and pain and wither away to nothing and then die a horrible agonizing death, and THEN comes the real fun, when he's sent to HELLFIRE forever to be tortured and set afire." While I wasn't there when Hitchens first read these remarks, I like to imagine that, rather than feeling hurt by them, they provided a source of amusement. Hitchens was well-versed in all the major religions, having studied them on the page and engaging with them all around the world.
"[W]ould this anonymous author want his views to be read by my unoffending children, who are also being given a hard time in their way, and by the same god? [And] why not a thunderbolt for yours truly, or something similarly awe-inspiring? The vengeful deity has a sadly depleted arsenal if all he can think of is exactly the cancer that my age and former 'lifestyle' would suggest that I got. [And] why cancer at all? Almost all men get cancer of the prostate if they live long enough: It's an undignified thing but quite evenly distributed among saints and sinners, believers and unbelievers. If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain."
-Christopher Hitchens, 'Mortality'
As I read Mortality, I was continuously struck by the realization that the vibrant voice on the page, buzzing with life as it did, came from a man who had not lived long enough to see his book published. And, more than that, the words on the page came from a man who, while facing death, was still holding out hope that he might survive his disease. In fact, some of the more bittersweet passages in the book are when Hitchens writes about encouraging doctor visits and experimental treatments; as he was writing, he didn't yet know that the encouragement of those visits would be short lived, that the treatments would ultimately be for naught.
Even in these thoughts, weighted as they are with sadness, I'm brightened by the inherit optimism of their promise. While Christopher Hitchens' body was mortal, his words are quite the opposite. One of the great reliefs I felt upon publishing my first book, Inside the Outside, was that my words would now live long after I died. In my fervent effort to complete my novel, I was constantly pressed by the morbid thought of dying before having an opportunity to complete it. So, for me, reading Mortality was something of an affirmation, a testmanet to the death-defying nature of our words.
While we never met, I will always consider Christopher Hitchens a friend, so long as his prose rests on my shelves. And whenever I care to speak with my pal Hitch, I need only to turn the page and say hello.
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