I wasn’t shocked, but was somewhat stunned, when I first read Christopher Hitchens’ short article in Vanity Fair announcing he had been diagnosed with cancer and would be taking a break from his normal busy itinerary. I could feel the dread about me, feeling bad for him, but also aware that it could just as easily have been me. Empathy, compassion, as well as a reminder of one’s helplessness when others, especially those close to you, come down with terminal maladies, all came to mind.
I was not that familiar with Hitchens’ work, had previously only read Why Orwell Matters, which I enjoyed, even if I didn’t necessarily agree with everything that was asserted in the book. And I had seen Hitchens on news segments, on several cable network channels, passionate, spirited, at times aggressive, in his unyielding convictions, frequently looking like he longed for a cocktail and a smoke, which seemed natural to me.
I can’t pinpoint or explain why, yet reading about Hitchens’ cancer diagnosis, I intuitively knew he was not going to live long. I had the same feeling when my brother-in-law was diagnosed with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, that his remaining days were dramatically numbered, and they were; he died eighteen months later at the age of fifty. On the other hand, when my mother was diagnosed with Stage Four breast cancer, I didn’t feel her death was imminent, even though she was over seventy, and it wasn’t. She found a great, compassionate oncologist who was willing to take her on as a patient because he liked her optimism and positive attitude, something, I must confess, that I didn’t inherit from her.
When Hitchens’ book Mortality came out, posthumously, earlier this year, I immediately bought it, reading it in one sitting, partly because he had entered what he called “Tumorland,” and I was interested in what thoughts he would offer in the face of fast approaching death, both in possibly giving me some more insight into what my mother might have been feeling during her long, inevitably fatal illness, and also what I might glean for myself, regarding possible preparatory insight, though absolutely no ability to avoid cancer if it strikes.
Hitchens wrote a series of columns about his experience having esophageal cancer, for which he won the National Magazine Award for Columns and Commentary, and those columns formed the basis of Mortality. He was a strong personality from what I observed from afar, nothing like my mother, with Hitchens presenting a commanding presence, yet, from what I can tell, Hitchens and my mother, in their own respective ways, faced death with a courage and dignity I’m not sure most have within.
Hitchens was riding high, having just launched his successful memoir, Hitch-22, in June of 2010, getting ready to do the rounds, television interviews promoting the book, readings, social events, a full schedule, filled with people, providing important and stimulating interactions during which Hitchens could exercise his wit, intelligence, stalwart positions on a number of issues, all by utilizing the distinctive resonance of his familiar voice. And then, bam, the morning of a day in which he is scheduled to appear on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and then later attend a sold-out event at the 92nd Street Y, on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, to join his friend, the writer, Salman Rushdie, in conversation, he awakes in his hotel and as he puts it, the whole cave of his chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement. That was the point, in retrospect, where Hitchens states, “I see it 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.”
I wish my mother had left a written record of her feelings and thoughts while struggling to postpone the ultimate acceleration toward the end. She was nothing like Christopher Hitchens, and yet, I think she would have liked him, found him interesting and entertaining, and above all sincere. My mother was a quiet person, under five feet tall, though I never thought of her as short, and though she didn’t think she was anything special, once people met her, they always remembered her. She had a way of making others feel comfortable, better, about themselves and the world. She was a good listener and had a natural sense of empathy, which allowed her to truly and genuinely feel the pain and problems others were facing.
Two particular moments come to mind, one right after my mother’s oncologist told her she had three months, six at the most, to live. She told me how bad she felt for the oncologist, with whom she had formed a partnership battling cancer over a period of six years. “It must have been so difficult for him to tell me,” she said. “So hard to give such news to someone.”
I would have been astounded, except it was my mother, and that’s what she was like. With someone else, I might well have screamed, “What do you mean, bad for him, he just said you don’t have long to live.”
The other moment was when I was talking to her on the phone the next day. She said, almost nonchalantly, with a sense of wonderment, “It’s funny, I don’t feel like I’m dying.”
But she was, and so was Christopher Hitchens. Hitchens writes, “The oncology bargain is that, in return for at least the chance of a few more useful years, you agree to submit to chemotherapy and then, if you are lucky with that, to radiation or even surgery.” And that’s the tradeoff my mother willingly made, undergoing chemotherapy, on and off, during the last years of her life. And then, ultimately, as my mother’s oncologist described it — although my mother made phenomenal progress, and lived much longer than expected, with large stretches of quality time — finally, it was as if she were crossing an icy pond and the ice had imperceptibly gotten thinner and thinner, and then cracked and could no longer support her weight.
Reading Mortality, I was reminded of the imperceptible deterioration of the body, how I cared for my mother the last six months of her life, but never quite noticed the exact moments her arms started becoming skinnier and skinnier, and the rapid loss of weight, and eventually, after she was gone, actually amazed how long she had lived given the fact that any objective outsider could see in a moment that my mother was in the final stages of fatal cancer striking her from within.
Hitchens is spot on when he writes, “Like health itself, the loss of such a thing can’t be imagined until it occurs.” I know I can’t pretend to imagine what Hitchens and my mother thought and felt. I can in an abstract way, but of course that isn’t close to the actuality. I can always take a break at any time, at least at the moment, from pretending that death from cancer isn’t a possibility, that whatever I say or feel won’t change anything. No, I’m not in “Tumortown” yet, a land where crying, praying or screaming won’t mean a thing, won’t change the inevitable outcome.
Now, Hitchens being Hitchens, and having a public persona, spends time in Mortality confronting the issue of religion and questioning the existence of God. My mother wasn’t outspoken, as a rule, and never liked confrontation, but I believe her views were quite similar to those of Hitchens, just not that vocal. Hitchens assets, “Either our convictions are enough in themselves or they are not,” a premise with which my mother would have readily concurred. Hitchens notes that upon learning he was suffering from esophageal cancer, “very few failed to say one of two things” — either they assured Hitchens they wouldn’t offend him by offering prayers or they tenderly insisted that they would pray anyway. This jumped out at me because I knew both my mother and I would be among the very few, neither of us giving thought to prayer in such a situation, but simply feeling helpless and wishing we could do more for the afflicted individual entering the final stages of life. And then, of course, as Hitchens asks, appropriately, I think, “Praying for what?”
In a memorable passage from Mortality, at least for me, Hitchens writes, “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-wrenching nausea on an utterly empty stomach.”
My mother was not a complainer, but I witnessed enough to know the validity of Hitchens’ observations about the “horror and humiliations.” I can remember bringing my mother home from chemo treatments when she was too frail and weak to walk up the stairs. No words were exchanged; it was what it was, and my mother was proud and determined to remain independent, so I would walk slowly behind her as she crawled on all fours up the stairs to her bedroom. What could I have possibly said? My mother knew I loved her. I wasn’t about to become a superficial cheerleader, spouting hollow words of encouragement, as she struggled up the stairs. No, after chemo, her only goal was to make it to her bed, to collapse for a day or two to recover from the poison entering her system, and then just as she was feeling better, it was time for the process to begin again.
I’m not sure how others feel, but most of my life I have certainly agreed and identified with Hitchens’ observation that “It’s no fun to appreciate to the full truth the materialistic proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.” I don’t know why, and don’t have the time to venture an analysis or possible explanation, but so far, I have not yet been able to truly, internally accept that my body is indeed not separate from my mind.
In the final section of Mortality, Hitchens records a series of fragmentary jottings, and once again returns to the concept of “I am a body” but admits “I consciously and regularly acted as if this was not true, or as if an exception would be made in my case.” That pretty much covers my behavior during adolescence and early adulthood, behaving recklessly and indulging in substances, mostly liquid, as if there would never be consequences and I would always be blessed with the invincibility of youth. But, as Hitchens reminds in a passionate, articulate voice through his writing, perhaps without knowing it, though I’m pretty sure he did, cancer inevitably shrinks the context of one’s life. He admits that “chemo-brain” is worst of all — “Dull, stuporous.” I saw my mother when suffering from “chemo-brain,” those days when she took to her bed with patience and courage, waiting to recover in order to begin another round.
I know my mother would have found Christopher Hitchens interesting, and entertaining, and most of all, genuine. Perhaps Hitchens thrived on the contest of debate, but he also surely loved an audience, and my mother would have been perfect, a ready made audience, a good listener without preconceived prejudices.
My mother and Hitchens also had an British lineage in common. Though my mother was born and raised in Ontario, her mother’s family, the Gibsons, made their way over from England to Ontario, while my father’s family came over to Canada from Scotland, on his mother’s side, and Ireland on his father’s. My mother was born as part of the British Empire, but never thought of herself as ever being a member of a worldwide colonial system upon which the sun never set at the time. My mother would have agreed wholeheartedly, I suspect, with Hitchens assertion that he was not “a conservative of any kind,” and my mother would have found comfort in Hitchens’ friend, the writer, Ian McEwan, describing Hitchens as representing the “anti-totalitarian left.” a position my mother would have found intellectually and emotionally proper.
Shortly after my mother died, took her last breath while I was kneeling by her bedside holding her hand, I discovered scraps of paper about with notes written in her small, neat, legible handwriting, as well as items such as library cards and credit cards. Hitchens touches on such things, simple but true, how ordinary expressions such as “expiration” dates take on a more consequential meaning.
Will he outlive his Amex card? he wonders. Or his driver’s license? And, of course, he didn’t. My mother expired before her driver’s license, as well, but it didn’t matter; she was too ill and feeble the last months of her life to drive, though she had always been one who would hop in her car on a moment’s notice to drive from New York City to my sister’s house in Ontario north of Toronto almost as if it took no more effort than crossing the street to go to the pharmacy or the deli.
I am hopelessly lost when it comes to physiology or anatomy, and maybe that’s a blessing. Not knowing or understanding much about the actual functioning of the human body saves me from terrifying reality but also leads to excess anxiety and mild hypochondria, where a twinge or an unexpected sensation in my stomach, can lead to the darkest fears of my imagination.
Life in a sense can be thought of as “slow motion combat” in which no one ever knows when he or she will be felled, so you keep on going, attending to the task at hand, the business of living. Hitchens writes, “Morning of biopsy, wake and say whatever happens this is the last day of my old life.” The unexpected, the arbitrary seemingly coming out of nowhere, with the choice still there, the choice of accepting reality or not, if not much else.
I have two sisters and one year the younger one went for her annual checkup and was asked if there was a history of breast cancer in her family, to which, she answered, honestly, “No.” The following year when asked the same question, she said to her doctor, “Yes, my mother and my sister.”
My mother lives on for me in memory, as an example of courage and remarkable internalized values. And Hitchens, well, I’m also grateful to Hitchens for writing Mortality. Hitchens states, “The most satisfying compliment a reader can pay is to tell me that he or she feels personally addressed,” and I, for one, am grateful I was able to read Hitchens’ final discourse in Mortality, which touched me with its honesty, and also, perhaps, enabled me to understand my mother’s final days a bit better.