Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens

Lately, I've been reading a lot of books about aging, illness, and death--and Mortality, a slim volume of essays written between Hitchens's being diagnosed with esophageal cancer and his death, is another in that line. The volume consists of an introduction by Vanity Fair editor Graydon Carter, seven Hitchens essays, some rather random notes left by Hitchens, and an afterword by his widow Carol Blue.

While the introduction and afterword are so laudatory as to be rather dull (understandable given that they were written very shortly after the death of a loved one), the Hitchens essays are consistently interesting. From the opening paragraph of the first essay, in which he describes the day that first sent him to the hospital, the day on which he awoke "feeling as if I were actually shackled to my own corpse," to the last essay, in which he details the horrible experience of having medical technicians try 12 times to insert a pick line, the book is unflinching in its depiction of the gruesomeness of having and being treated for a stage four cancer.

My favorite essay is the one in which Hitchens dismantles the adage "Whatever doesn't kill you makes you stronger."  I have always thought this was completely untrue, but there's nothing like cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation to provide the convincing argument. As the quotes below illustrate, I also appreciated Hitchens's discourse on voice, prompted by a literal inability to speak at one point in his illness. And, for anyone wondering, cancer did not drive Hitchens to religion; he maintained his atheism even in the face of mortality.

Favorite passage:
All of the best recollections of wisdom and friendship, from Plato's Apologies to Socrates to Boswell's Life of Johnson resound with the spoken unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation. . . . For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off, the ones that made sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.

In the medical literature, the vocal chord is a mere fold, a piece of gristle that strives to reach out and touch its twin, thus producing the possibility of sound effects. But I feel that there must be a deep relationship with the word chord, the resonant vibration that can stir memory, produce music, evoke love, bring tears, move crowns to pity and mobs to passion.

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