From Zak M. Salih. Email him at zak[AT]borderstan.com.
In October 2010, Christopher Hitchens first became physically aware of the esophageal cancer from which he would die a little over a year later. Suffering from severe chest pains the morning before another day on the tour circuit for his memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens was attended to by emergency paramedics. Writing about the episode in retrospect, he described the moment as “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.”
His time in this terrible terrain (“Tumortown” as he calls it) is captured in Mortality, the journalist and public intellectual’s posthumous collection of Vanity Fair pieces detailing his “year of living dyingly.” Here, we get Hitchens on everything from how to talk to cancer patients (he recounts a cringe-worthy conversation at a book signing between him and a “sympathizer”) and dealing with prayer and alternative medicine (both, unsurprisingly, he views as bunk) to enduring chemotherapy treatments and finding support in two of the things that matter to him most: friendships and literature.
These essays don’t shy away from the author’s emotional highs and lows (despite his clear headedness, Hitchens is forthcoming about suffering the same bouts of melancholy one would expect of anyone diagnosed with terminal cancer). Yet even as a premature death seems more and more likely, Hitchens never backs down from the hard opinions and sometimes unsavory views that made him beloved of his readers and feared by his critics. For example, he describes Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” (an uplifting talk the dying professor gave about following your dreams that turned into a viral video) as “so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.”
Hitchens was someone for whom writing was, as he himself puts it, not just a living but a life itself. And more than anything else, it’s Hitchens’ voice that makes even the darkest of this collection’s essays worth reading and — perhaps surprising to some — actually inspiring in a way that feels genuine. There’s no softening or sugar coating of the fear of death here. It’s just treated as something that happens. As Hitchens writes at one point, “I don’t have a body, I am a body.”
But he’s also his words as well. And those words, as captured in Mortality (to say nothing of his tract on atheism, god is not Great, or his massive collection of essays, Arguably), are definitely ones worth reading and pondering.