Christopher Hitchens referred to his as a ‘blind, emotionless alien’. Though his cancer may have been emotionless, Hitchens is anything but in his remarkable final book, Mortality, being released on September 4. Those familiar with his work may be surprised by how vulnerable he is, as he shares his diagnosis of esophageal cancer.
Anyone who has had cancer, or known someone who had cancer, will instantly relate to this book. He’s not shy about documenting the horrors endured by the body in pursuit of a cure, brutally honest about the treatment, the side effects and the emotional toll. You can’t help but cringe as he recounts the agony of a PIC line insertion that should’ve taken ten minutes, but required twelve attempts over two hours.
At the same time, sometimes even on the same page, he’ll make you laugh out loud: “You can die from sheer advice.” He has practical suggestions for an etiquette handbook for residents of both Tumortown and Wellville (hint: stop talking about other people’s cancers).
He freely admits to denial, though it happens less often as time goes on. No fan of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’ stages of grief, Hitchens does describe a long attachment to “bargaining”.
He resists the idea of going to battle, where those diagnosed with cancer are referred to as “warriors”. What if you lose the battle, he asks. Then you’ve failed yourself and those who cheered you on.
In the middle of one of his hospitalizations, he reflects on something we all say off-handedly, but which now means something very different:
“One thing grave illness does is to make you examine familiar principles and seemingly reliable sayings. And there’s one that I find I am not saying with quite the same conviction as I once used to. In particular, I have slightly stopped issuing the announcement that ‘whatever doesn’t kill me makes me stronger’.”
I remember when he died that I was grateful to have not heard that this famous atheist had made a deathbed conversion. Now I’m doubly glad he kept to his convictions, given the behavior of self-proclaimed religious people upon hearing the news of his cancer diagnosis. The hatred directed towards him was stunning: the insistence that now he was being punished for not believing in God, he was getting ‘what he deserved’. That leads to a discussion about who ‘deserves’ cancer, which will certainly give you pause.
Although Hitchens is genuinely appreciative of the medical personnel who treat him – technicians, doctors, nurses, researchers – late in the book he admits to a kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. The reaction is related to an article he’d written for Vanity Fair about waterboarding, in which he describes undergoing the torture himself. Now, he perversely sees how close his medical treatment is to torture.
“Are you feeling any discomfort or distress?” The doctors ask the same questions as the military men who waterboarded him. In his mind, only the intent and inflection separate deliberate torture from sanctioned medical treatment. Knowing they’re trying to help and not hurt you makes all the difference in the world, even when it feels like torture.
Once he gets past the denial, it’s not all sarcasm. Sometimes it’s silly: “Will I outlive my AMEX? My driver’s license?” Sometimes it’s the frightening, lonely realization that everyone with cancer has to accept: “I’m not fighting or battling cancer – it’s fighting me.”
Early in the book, Hitchens admits “My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of my friends.”
I love that that he was grateful for his friends, and the normalcy they could give him. I also love the phrase “year of living dyingly”.
It’s a short read but not an easy one, just over 100 pages, with a forward by Graydon Carter and an afterward by Hitchens’ wife Carol Blue. The final chapter is a collection of random thoughts at the end of his life that will make you sad knowing they will never be fully explained.
It doesn’t matter if you were a fan of Christopher Hitchens while he was alive. But if you want to look into the heart and mind of a man facing a grim diagnosis with uncommon honesty, read this book. It’s that good.
“For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one."
To order Mortality, click HERE