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“And on that day [of my death], I’ve realised recently that I’ll probably be in the newspapers, or quite a lot of them. And etiquette being what it is, generally speaking, rather nice things being said about me. Just typical that will be the edition I miss.” – Christopher Hitchens
With great sadness I note the death of British author, literary critic, journalist and provocateur Christopher Hitchens at the age of 62.
Hitchens died at a Texas hospital from complications related to oesophageal cancer, of which he had been suffering for some time.
Vanity Fair magazine, for whom he wrote, said there would “never be another like Christopher”. Editor Graydon Carter described him as a man “of ferocious intellect, who was as vibrant on the page as he was at the bar”.
He added: “Those who read him felt they knew him, and those who knew him were profoundly fortunate souls.”
Count me as one who felt I knew him. Shortly after I was diagnosed with stomach cancer in mid-2010, I picked up a copy of Vanity Fair during my first full day of chemotherapy treatment at the Royal Marsden Hospital.
It was a difficult day; any bravado tends to slip away pretty quickly as you enter the treatment room, look around at fellow patients and wonder what lies ahead. Before you know it, you’re hooked up intravenously and it all begins. Your life, already in turmoil, starts to change again. Drip by drip by drip.
I remember well sitting in my ‘comfy chair’, drifting in and out of sleep while the chemo began its work. One time when I awoke I flicked through the pages of Vanity Fair. Though I knew of Hitchens’ work and reputation, I had never read much of it. But his article in this particular issue and those that followed in ensuing issues garnered my attention as he articulated his own confrontation with the ‘big C’.
“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,” he wrote of the chemotherapy experience, “the 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… 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.”
Amazing writing that reached to the very core of the dichotomy that chemotherapy represents to cancer patients – hell and salvation combined in a single dose.
Of all the commentators I read (and there were many), only Hitchens captured that double-edged sword so perfectly. Then again, what did one expect? After all, here was the man who wrote of televangelist Jerry Falwell’s passing that “if you give Falwell an enema, you could bury him in a matchbox”.
In an August 2010 essay for the magazine he wrote: “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.” They were poignantly prophetic, brutally honest words.
Mick Brown, in a memorable article in UK online newspaper The Telegraph, noted that until Hitchens’ publication in 2007 of his book ‘God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything’, he had been, in the words of author Susan Sontag, “a sovereign figure in the small world of those who tilled the field of ideas” – but largely unknown outside it.
God Is Not Great changed all, Brown notes, making him a champion of the ‘New Atheism’, alongside such celebrated non-believers as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, the American neuroscientist. “His growing public status as God’s fiercest critic would lend a particular poignancy to his struggle with the cancer of the oesophagus that would take his life,” Brown concludes.
He continues: “Even on the doorstep of death, Hitchens was a colossal force for life. I have not met anybody with such a well-furnished mind – nor such a well-stocked drinks cabinet: he had a prodigious appetite for alcohol, and a happy facility for being able to function under the influence, if not always in the aftermath. Large sections of his memoir ‘Hitch-22’ describe him staggering from one hangover to the next.”
Simply reading about his death has ensured I will wake up post writing this article late into the night with a hangover of my own. The man from Tumortown has left us. And we are all the poorer for it.
From Tumortown – by Christopher Hitchens
I was waiting to sign copies at an event in Manhattan a few weeks ago. Picture, if you will, me sitting at my table, approached by a motherly-looking woman (a key constituent of my demographic):
She: I was so sorry to hear you had been ill.
Me: Thank you for saying so.
She: A cousin of mine had cancer.
Me: Oh, I am sorry to hear that.
She: [As the line of customers lengthens behind her.] Yes, in his liver.
Me: That’s never good.
She: But it went away, after the doctors had told him it was incurable.
Me: Well, that’s what we all want to hear.
She: [With those farther back in line now showing signs of impatience.]Yes. But then it came back, much worse than before.
Me: Oh, how dreadful.
She: And then he died. It was agonizing. Agonizing. Seemed to take him forever.
Me: [Beginning to search for words.] …
She: Of course, he was a lifelong homosexual.
Me: [Not quite finding the words, and not wishing to sound stupid by echoing “of course.”] …
She: And his whole immediate family disowned him. He died virtually alone.
Me: Well, I hardly know what to …
She: Anyway, I just wanted you to know that I understand exactly what you are going through.