The Last Word
Christopher Hitchens’ widow on his life, his work, and his death.
The following is Carol Blue’s afterword to her husband Christopher Hitchens’ book Mortality, out in September from Twelve.
Onstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.
If you ever saw him at the podium, you may not share Richard Dawkins’ assessment that “he was the greatest orator of our time,” but you will know what I mean—or at least you won’t think, She would say that, she’s his wife.
Offstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.
At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students, and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny 20 minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “How good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice.
My husband is an impossible act to follow.
And yet, now I must follow him. I have been forced to have the last word.
It was the sort of early summer evening in New York when all you can think of is living. It was June 8, 2010, to be exact, the first day of his American book tour. I ran as fast as I could down East 93rd Street, suffused with joy and excitement at the sight of him in his white suit. He was dazzling. He was also dying, though we didn't know it yet. And we wouldn't know it for certain until the day of his death.
Earlier that day he had taken a detour from his book launch to a hospital because he thought he was having a heart attack. By the time I saw him standing at the stage entrance of the 92nd Street Y that evening, he and I—and we alone—knew he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed.
We went into the theater, where he conquered yet another audience. We managed to get through a jubilant dinner in his honor and set out on a stroll back to our hotel through the perfect Manhattan night, walking more than 50 blocks. Everything was as it should be, except that it wasn't. We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.
The new world lasted 19 months. During this time of what he called "living dyingly," he insisted ferociously on living, and his constitution, physical and philosophical, did all it could to stay alive.
Christopher was aiming to be among the 5 to 20 percent of those who could be cured. (The odds depended on what doctor we talked to and how they interpreted the scans.) Without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with a radical, childlike hope. His will to keep his existence intact, to remain engaged with his preternatural intensity, was spectacular.
Thanksgiving was his favorite holiday, and I watched with awe as he organized, even as he was sick from the effects of the chemotherapy, a grand family gathering in Toronto with all his children and his father-in-law on the eve of an important debate with Tony Blair about religion. This was an occasion orchestrated by a man who told me in the hotel suite that night that this would probably be his last Thanksgiving.
Not long before, back in Washington, on a bright and balmy Indian-summer afternoon, he excitedly summoned his family and visiting friends on an outing to see the “Origins of Man” exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History, where I watched him sprint out of a cab and up the granite steps to throw up in a trash can before leading his charges through the galleries and exuberantly impressing us with the attainments of science and reason.
Christopher’s charisma never left him, not in any realm: not in public, not in private, not even in the hospital. He made a party of it, transforming the sterile, chilly, neon-lighted, humming and beeping and blinking room into a study and a salon. His artful conversation never ceased.
The constant interruptions: The poking and prodding, the sample taking, the breathing treatments, the IV bags being changed—nothing kept him from holding court, making a point or an argument or hitting a punch line for his "guests." He listened and drew us out, and had us all laughing. He was always asking for and commenting on another newspaper, another magazine, another novel, another review copy. We stood around his bed and reclined on plastic upholstered chairs as he made us into participants in his Socratic discourses.
One night he was coughing up blood and was wheeled into the ICU for a hastily scheduled bronchoscopy. I alternated between watching over him and sleeping in a convertible chair. We lay side by side in our single beds. At one point we both woke up and started burbling like children at a sleepover party. At the time, this was the best it was going to get.
When he came to following the bronchoscopy, after the doctor told him the trouble in his windpipe was not cancer but rather pneumonia, he was still intubated but avidly scribbling notes and questions about every conceivable subject. I saved the pages of paper on which he wrote his side of the conversation. There are sweet-nothings and a picture he drew on the top of the first page and then:
Pneumonia? What type?
Am I cancer free.
Pain is hard to remember, right now, 4 to 5.
He asked after the children, and my father.
How’s Edwin? Tell him I asked.
I worry about him
’Cos I love him.
I want to hear him.
Slightly down the page he wrote what he wanted me to bring him from our guesthouse in Houston:
Nietzsche, Mencken and Chesterton books. Plus all random bits paper… Maybe in one hold-all bag. Look in the drawers! Bedside, etc. Up and downstairs.
That night a dear family friend arrived from New York and was in the room when, in one of his nocturnal interludes of wakefulness and energy, Christopher flashed an open, wide smile around the tube still running down his throat and wrote on his clipboard:
I'm staying here [in Houston] until I'm cured. And then I'm taking our families on a vacation to Bermuda.
The next morning, after they took the tube out, I came into his room to find him smiling, his foxlike grin on me.
"Happy anniversary!" he called out.
A nurse came in with a small white cake, paper plates and plastic forks. ...
Another wedding anniversary: We are reading the newspaper on the terrace in our suite in a New York hotel. It is a faultless fall day. Our 2-year-old daughter is sitting contentedly beside us, drinking a bottle. She climbs off her chair and squats down, inspecting something on the ground. She pulls the bottle out of her mouth, calls to me and points to a large, motionless bumble bee. She is alarmed, shaking her head back and forth, as if to say, “No, no, no!”
"The bee stopped," she says. Then she makes a command: "Make it start."
Back then she believed I had the power to reanimate the dead. I don't recall what I said to her about the bee. What I do recall are the words "Make it start." Christopher then lifted her into his lap and consoled and distracted her with a change of subject and humor. Just as he would, with all of his children, so many years later, when he was ill.
I miss his perfect voice. I heard it day and night, night and day. I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of “his morning voice” as he read me snippets from the newspaper that outraged or amused him; the delighted and irritated (mostly irritated) registers as I interrupted him while he read; the jazz-tone riffs of him “talking down the line” to a radio station from the kitchen phone as he cooked lunch; his chirping, high-note greeting when our daughter came home from school; and his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night.
I miss, as his readers must, his writer’s voice, his voice on the page. I miss 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 or in our place in California and the emails he sent when he was on the road. And I miss his handwritten communiqués: his innumerable letters and postcards (we date back to the time of the epistle) and his faxes, the thrill of receiving Christopher’s instant dispatches as he checked-in from a dicey spot on some other continent.
The first time Christopher went public and wrote about his illness for Vanity Fair, he was ambivalent about it. He was intent on protecting our family’s privacy. He was living the topic, and he didn’t want it to become all-encompassing, he didn’t want to be defined by it. He wanted to think and write in a sphere apart from sickness. He had made a pact with his editor and chum, Graydon Carter, that he would write about anything except sports, and he kept that promise. He had often put himself in the frame, but now he was the ultimate subject of the story.
His last words of the unfinished fragmentary jottings at the end of this little book may seem to trail off, but in fact they were written on his computer in bursts of energy and enthusiasm as he sat in the hospital using his food tray for a desk.
When he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, we thought it would be for a brief stay. He thought—we all thought—he’d have the chance to write the longer book that was forming in his mind. His intellectual curiosity was sparked by genomics and the cutting-edge proton radiation treatments he underwent, and he was encouraged by the prospect that his case could contribute to future medical breakthroughs. He told an editor friend waiting for an article, “Sorry for the delay, I’ll be back home soon.” He told me he couldn’t wait to catch up on all the movies he had missed and to see the King Tut exhibition in Houston, our temporary residence.
The end was unexpected.
At home in Washington, I pull books off the shelves, out of the book towers on the floor, off the stacks of volumes on tables. Inside the back covers are notes written in his hand that he took for reviews and for himself. Piles of his papers and notes lie on surfaces all around the apartment, some of which were taken from his suitcase that I brought back from Houston. At any time I can peruse our library and his notes and rediscover and recover him.
When I do, I hear him, and he has the last word. Time after time, Christopher has the last word.