I have long been a Hitchens fan, a huge admirer of his intellect, his extraordinary brightness, as well as his fearlessless, when well, but even more so when ill.

I followed his column in Vanity Fair from the diagnosis of oesophageal cancer, much of which is now available in the posthumously published book Mortality (London: Atlantic Books, 2012). Perhaps a somewhat mellower representation of the writer, Hitchens, within the framework of illness and the possibility of imminent death, is still Hitchens, ascerbic, ironic, pretty fearless, and palpably authentic.

Mortality opens with a terrifying image, on the day he was forced to confront his symptoms and seek medical advice:

‘The whole cave of my chest and thorax seemed to have been hollowed out and then refilled with slow-drying cement.’

This, almost shocking, metaphor leads quickly to acute medical intervention, and ultimately ‘the diagnosis’.

Susan Sonntag spoke of the separate Kingdoms of the sick and of the well, and how narrow in reality the divide is between the two. Hitchens similarly speaks of moving from one world to another, following the diagnosis:

‘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.’

Despite the confirmed reality of cancer, and the strange world Hitchens has sudddenly been catapulted into, a wry humour remains:

‘The new land is quite welcoming in its way. Everyone smiles encouragingly and there appears to be absolutely no racism.’

But with the new land, comes a new language, both verbal (‘metastasized’, ‘ondansetron’) and non-verbal, gestures that needed getting used to and interpreting. I was reminded me of the words of the poet Julia Darling, who died of breast cancer, and her poem Too Heavy (The Poetry Cure, Julia Darling & Cynthia Fuller (eds), Northumberland: Bloodaxe Poetry, 2005, ps.35-36):

‘Dear Doctor,

I am writing to complain about these words

you have given me, that I carry in my bag

lymphatic, nodal, progressive, metastatic

There is much more I need to say about Hitchen’s Mortality.

More tomorrow.

For now, I end with this:

‘To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: “Why not?”‘

CQ

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