In Mortality (Twelve, 2012) Christopher Hitchens discusses in seven complete and one partially complete essays his feelings about death—his own. They were written in the eighteen-month period between his diagnosis and his demise. He describes the morning that led to his diagnosis: “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. My heart was beating either much too much or much too little.” He takes us through his gradual diminishment of physical vigor, the weakening and then disappearance of his voice, the effects of chemotherapy, the loss of body hair. He contemplates his family’s life after he has passed from the scene, regrets that his life will end prematurely and incomplete, mourns the books he will never write. He maintains certain characteristic attitudes essential to his sense of integrity—he resents those who think he might have a last-minute religious conversion, is bemused by those who pray for him, and uses his oncoming death as a way to further confound arguments for the existence of a supreme being. The very nature of disease he finds to be arbitrary and unintentional: “If you maintain that god awards the appropriate cancers, you must also account for the numbers of infants who contract leukemia. Devout persons have died young and in pain. Bertrand Russell and Voltaire, by contrast, remained spry until the end, as many psychopathic criminals and tyrants have also done. These visitations, then, seem awfully random.”
The final essay is an unfinished series of thoughts and comments. Hitchens died before he could complete it.
As I grow older and approach the date when either I drop stone dead, or a doctor informs me that the process is in motion (cancer, heart disease, whatever), I find it sobering and informative and sad to share in Hitchens’ experiences as he passes through his final weeks and days. (“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.” Despite his religious sobriety, or maybe because of it, his accounts offer no reassurance about the final moment. There are no wise insights, nothing we can cling to other than his dogged insistence on remaining himself. And maybe that is the point—these essays testify to the power of human character and intellect—in these essays, and his other writings, they are what remain of Hitchens now that his body no longer lives.
After all, when Hitchens died, he was dead, the only fact truer than the others.