"Remember, you too are mortal"—hit me at the top of my form and just as things were beginning to plateau. My two assets my pen and my voice—and it had to be the esophagus. All along, while burning the candle at both ends, I'd been "straying into the arena of the unwell" and now "a vulgar little tumor" was evident. This alien can't want anything; if it kills me it dies but it seems very single-minded and set in its purpose. No real irony here, though. Must take absolute care not to be self-pitying or self-centered.
In her afterword to Mortality
, Hitchens' widow, Carol Blue, writes of how she misses "the unpublished Hitch: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send while we sat in different rooms in our apartment." For writers less productive than Hitchens—that is, all of us—the idea of unpublished Hitch is inconceivable. He was everywhere—on TV when he wasn't giving a speech, his latest book either just published or about to be published, the author of pieces in Slate
, Vanity Fair
, and the Atlantic
in the same week. How could anything have gone unpublished? How could there be any stories, any jokes, any insults, any perfect Wodehouse citations that were never silver-tongued out into the world? Yet despite writing as much as he did, he left some behind, either for friends and family, or, in this case, as notes.
The publisher calls these "fragmentary jottings." But even poisoned by chemo, even down 14 pounds, Hitch wrote with as much toughness, energy, and wit as ever.
Always prided myself on my reasoning faculty and my stoic materialism. I don't have a body, I am a body. Yet consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case. Feeling husky and tired on tour? See the doctor when it's over!
Lost fourteen pounds without trying. Thin at last. But don't feel lighter because walking to the fridge is like a forced march. Then again, the vicious psoriasis/excema pustules that no doctor could treat have gone, too. This must be some impressive toxin I'm taking. And a mercy for sleep purposes…but all the sleep-aids and blissful dozes seem somehow a waste of life—there's plenty of future time in which to be unconscious.
The nice men with the oxygen and the gurney and the ambulance very gently deporting me across the frontier of the well, in another country.
In Moonwalking With Einstein, Joshua Foer explains how to use your memory to extend your life. Routine days and nights leave no lasting impression—they pass, and it's as though they never happened. Unusual events—exotic travel, strange encounters, new experiences—plant durable memories and make life actually seem longer. Essentially, the more you remember, the more you feel you have lived, and thus, the more you actually have lived. Hitchens was the embodiment of this idea. He constantly sought sensation—traveled everywhere, drank everything, met everyone, got waterboarded—and he remembered it all, as well as everything he read.
The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death.
Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my LIFE have also been greatly exaggerated. Lived to see most of what's going to be written about me: this too is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realize how soon it, too, will be "background."
Hitchens was most often compared to George Orwell, another muscular, anti-totalitarian journalist. But is Oscar Wilde an even better comparison? Like Wilde, Hitchens performed. And like Wilde, Hitchens was always funny.
Julian Barnes on John Diamond…
A bout de soufflé…Seberg/Belmondo. Funny how one uses "breathless" or "out of breath" so casually. At Logan [airport]—can't breathe! Next stop terminal.
"Next stop terminal." That's a great line. As he was dying, Hitchens became especially attuned to the ways in which we talk, and don't, about death. See his fragment about "expiration date" below.
Tragedy? Wrong word: Hegel versus the Greeks.
Morning of biopsy, wake and say whatever happens this is the last day of my old life. No pretence of youth or youthfulness anymore. From now on an arduous awareness.
New Yorker cartoon on obit pages…Used to notice death-dates of Orwell, Wilde etc. Now maybe as long as Evelyn Waugh.
Amazing how heart and lungs and liver have held up: would have been healthier if I'd been more sickly.
Hitchens took so much abuse for how much he drank and smoke. It must have given him satisfaction that his lungs and liver never betrayed him.
PRAYER: Interesting contradictions at the expense of those who offer it—too easy a Pascalian escape-hatch with me on the right side of the wager this time: what god could ignore such supplications? Same token—those who say I am being punished are saying that god can't think of anything more vengeful than cancer for a heavy smoker.
Nose-hairs gone: runny nostrils. Constipation and diarrhea alternating…
"The old order changeth, yielding place to new, and God fulfils himself in many ways and soon, I suppose, I shall be swept away by some vulgar little tumor…".
Some years ago, a British journalism, John Diamond, was diagnosed with cancer, and turned his condition into a weekly column. Rightly, he maintained the same perky tone that characterized the rest of his work: rightly, he admitted cowardice and panic alongside curiosity and occasional courage. His account sounded completely authentic: this was what living with cancer entailed; nor did being ill make you a different person, or stop you having rows with your wife. Like many other readers, I used to quietly urge him on from week to week. But after a year and more…well, a certain narrative expectation inevitably built up. Hey, miracle cure! Hey, I was just having you on! No, neither of those could work as endings. Diamond had to die; and he duly, correctly (in narrative terms) did. Though—how can I put this?—a stern literary critic might complain that his story lacked compactness toward the end…
While Hitchens was dying, and then after he died, many of us made a point of admiring how vigorously and passionately he wrote about his illness. The unspoken message of all this almost seemed to be: Isn't it wonderful that Hitchens is dying so brilliantly! But now that he's been dead almost a year—a year without a column, a review, a fight—the fact that he went out so boisterously is small solace. Better he had another 35 years to write about Iraq and God and wine and everything else he liked to write about when he wasn't dying.
Tendency of some commiserations to sound unintentionally final, either by past tense or some other giveaway of a valedictory sort. Sending flowers not as nice as it might seem.
I'm not fighting or battling cancer—it's fighting me.
One reason Hitchens wrote so well about dying was that he was at heart a war correspondent. He liked conflict. In this case, he engaged in the most graphic war reporting of his life—chronicling the unwinnable conflict between the "alien" and his own self, a series of skirmishes over his vocal cords, skin, and nose hair.
Brave? Hah! Save it for a fight you can't run away from.
Saul Bellow: Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.
Vertiginous feeling of being kicked forward in time: catapulted toward the finish line. Trying not to think with my tumor, which would not be thinking at all. People try to make it sound as if it were an EPISODE in one's life.
ONCOLOGY/ONTOLOGY: Under the old religious dispensation, heaven would simply sentence you to be lavishly tortured and then executed. Montaigne: "Religion's surest foundation is the contempt for life."
Fear leads to superstition—"The Big C," though, seems mercifully to have dumped—and I'm glad nobody wants to slaughter any endangered species on my behalf.
Only OK if I say something objective and stoical: Ian remarking that a time might come when I'd have to let go: Carol asking about Rebecca's wedding "Are you afraid you won't see England again?"
Also, 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!
COLD FEET (so far only at night): "peripheral neuropathy" is another of those words like "necrotic" that describe death-in-life of the system.
AND you lose weight but cancer isn't interested in eating your flab. It wants your muscle. The Tumortown Diet ain't much help.
Worst of all is "chemo-brain." Dull, stuporous. What if the protracted, lavish torture is only the prelude to a gruesome execution.
Body turns from reliable friend to more neutral to treacherous foe…Proust?
Hitchens with "chemo-brain": better that most journalists on two cups of coffee.
If I convert it's because it's better that a believer dies than that an atheist does.
This is my favorite line in the book. It's a kick in the face to all those people who nagged him to accept God on his deathbed. I also like that it takes a few seconds to get the joke. I read it once, was baffled, and only laughed after I read it again.
Not even a race for a cure…
Paperwork the curse of Tumortown.
Misery of seeing oneself on old videos or YouTubes…
"Gradual disclosure" not yet a problem for me.
Michael Korda's book Man to Man…
You can get so habituated to bad news that good news is like Breytenbach and the cake. Consolations of saying, well at least now I won't have to do THAT.
Larkin good on fear in "Aubade," with implied reproof to Hume and Lucretius for their stoicism. Fair enough in one way: atheists ought not to be offering consolation either.
Banality of cancer. Entire pest-house of side-effects. Special of the day.
See Symborska's poem on torture and the body as a reservoir of pain.
In these few short pages, Hitchens manages to cite: Montaigne, Hegel, Waugh, Wilde, Orwell, Hume, Lucretius, Larkin, Szymborska … Is there anything he hadn't read?
From Alan Lightman's intricate 1993 novel Einstein's Dreams
; set in Berne in 1905:
With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great aunts…and so on, back through the generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers. Nor do daughters of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.