Mortality: Hitchens’ journey with cancer

The bookshelves are crowded these days with stories of near-death experience, or battles with cancer, bravely fought. They are usually inspiring, the former life changing and the latter descriptions of believing and peace. This book is of a different sort.


By Christopher Hitchens

$17 McClelland and Stewart Publishing

The bookshelves are crowded these days with stories of near-death experience, or battles with cancer, bravely fought.

They are usually inspiring, the former life changing and the latter descriptions of believing and peace.

This book is of a different sort.

The title makes it plain that death is present, but the writer looks forward to no bright lights or lasting peace.

He is Christopher Hitchens, the famously outspoken atheist, who scoffs at any notion described of life after death or a deity that cares either way.

He has a “saucy fearlessness,” that makes his story compelling.

In the 2010, Christopher Hitchens was launching a new book, he was sought after as a public speaker and raconteur, and his column in Vanity Fair was widely read.

Then he was diagnosed with stage four esophageal cancer.

He was 71 years old.

This book is about his journey with that disease.

He refuses to call it a battle, as the disease, has no “life” except by its presence in his body.

The well known stages leading to acceptance of a life-altering illness do not apply to Hitchens. He does not bargain or deal with whoever is in charge (because he believes no one is).

He examines the decline of his faculties and reports back.

He has always read widely and now he remembers and quotes thoughts of death by well known writers.

He describes his symptoms of pain and hair loss throughout his bloodletting and the chemo treatments.

Caregivers and visitors would profit from his discourse on what should be discussed and what remarks are best left unsaid.

Because he remained in the public eye, autographing and speaking publicly, he came in contact with many people.

He received letters from “believers” suggesting esophageal cancer was his reward for speaking against religion.

He wonders if he has time to write an etiquette book on the subject of what to say to a person who is dying.

His own well recorded remarks about religion have been equally offensive in some quarters.

Of course, this book will be unappealing to many people.

Hitchens in debate can be very offensive, and a visit at a deathbed should not, perhaps, be a battle of words.

Like everyone else, he had grand plans, for books and speeches and lectures, for trips and activities with his children.

Some people might offer to pray for a dying friend.

They would not be welcome in this case.

The strength of this book is in the writing.

He writes plainly and eloquently from, “Tumourville.”

He gathers his friends for deep and raucous conversation as long as his voice lasts, and he writes notes and ideas for future conjecture.

He believes his illness came to him from a lifetime of smoking, drinking and late nights.

He is probably right.

Christopher Hitchens is the author of several books, including God Is Not Great, Arguably: a Book of Essays and Hitch 20.

Peggy Freeman is a local freelance books reviewer.

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