The Pequod Review:
Christopher Hitchens's short book Mortality is in many ways his best, primarily because its subject (his own impending death) leads him to mostly avoid the political posturing and mean-spirited religious attacks that plagued his earlier work. Hitchens's story begins in 2009 when he started to experience troubling symptoms during a book tour for Hitch-22:
I have more than once in my time woken up feeling like death. But nothing prepared me for the early morning in June when I came to consciousness feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse. The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. I could faintly hear myself breathe but could not manage to inflate my lungs... The night of the terrible morning, I was supposed to go on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and then appear at a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side, in conversation with Salman Rushdie. My very short-lived campaign of denial took this form: I would not cancel these appearances or let down my friends or miss the chance of selling a stack of books. I managed to pull off both gigs without anyone noticing anything amiss, though I did vomit two times, with an extraordinary combination of accuracy, neatness, violence, and profusion, just before each show. This is what citizens of the sick country do while they are still hopelessly clinging to their old domicile.
Soon afterward, he would be diagnosed with esophageal cancer, which relocated him to the new land of "Tumorville":
[Tumorville] is quite welcoming in its way. Everybody smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism. A generally egalitarian spirit prevails, and those who run the place have obviously got where they are on merit and hard work. As against that, the humor is a touch feeble and repetitive, there seems to be almost no talk of sex, and the cuisine is the worst of any destination I have ever visited. The country has a language of its own — a lingua franca that manages to be both dull and difficult and that contains names like ondansetron, for anti-nausea medication — as well as some unsettling gestures that require a bit of getting used to. For example, an official met for the first time may abruptly sink his fingers into your neck. That’s how I discovered that my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes, and that one of these deformed beauties — located on my right clavicle, or collarbone — was big enough to be seen and felt. It’s not at all good when your cancer is “palpable” from the outside. Especially when, as at this stage, they didn’t even know where the primary source was. Carcinoma works cunningly from the inside out. Detection and treatment often work more slowly and gropingly, from the outside in. Many needles were sunk into my clavicle area — “Tissue is the issue” being a hot slogan in the local Tumorville tongue — and I was told the biopsy results might take a week.
Hitchens then proceeds to trace the course of his disease, one that would lead to his death eighteen months later (in December 2011). His account is a unique one in that he focuses much of his attention on deconstructing the language that surrounds illness — and especially the empty platitudes and vacuous well-wishes that the healthy administer to the sick. In these sections, he is the intellectual successor to Susan Sontag:
[The treatment of cancer] involves confronting one of the most appealing clichés in our language. You’ve heard it all right. People don’t have cancer: they are reported to be battling cancer. No well-wisher omits the combative image: You can beat this. It’s even in obituaries for cancer losers, as if one might reasonably say of someone that they died after a long and brave struggle with mortality. You don’t hear it about long-term sufferers from heart disease or kidney failure.
Myself, 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 soldier or revolutionary 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.
It’s normally agreed that the question "How are you?" 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.") Nobody wants to be told about the countless minor horrors and humiliations that become facts of ‘life’ when your body turns from being a friend to being a foe: the boring switch from chronic constipation to its sudden dramatic opposite; the equally nasty double cross of feeling acute hunger while fearing even the scent of food; the absolute misery of gut-wringing nausea on an utterly empty stomach; or the pathetic discovery that hair loss extends to the disappearance of the follicles in your nostrils, and thus to the childish and irritating phenomenon of a permanently runny nose. Sorry, but you did ask… It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.
The book ends with a final chapter of "fragmentary jottings" that never made their way into the main section of the book. In a haunting way, they show that Hitchens's wit and intellectual combativeness remained fully alive until the very end:
If I convert it's because it's better a believer dies than that an atheist does.
Ordinary expressions like "expiration date" . . . will I outlive my Amex? My driver’s license? People say — "I’m in town on Friday: will you be around?" WHAT A QUESTION!
Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.
This is a sad and tragic read, but yet also optimistic and inspiring.