Death is the dark backing that a mirror needs if we are able to see anything.*
Onstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.
If you ever saw him at the podium, you may not share Richard Dawkin’s assessment that “he was the greatest orator of our time,” but you will know what I mean – or at least you won’t think, She would say that, she’s his wife.
Offstage, my husband was an impossible act to follow.
At home at one of the raucous, joyous, impromptu eight-hour dinners we often found ourselves hosting, where the table was so crammed with ambassadors, hacks, political dissidents, college students, and children that elbows were colliding and it was hard to find the space to put down a glass of wine, my husband would rise to give a toast that could go on for a stirring, spellbinding, hysterically funny twenty minutes of poetry and limerick reciting, a call to arms for a cause, and jokes. “how good it is to be us,” he would say in his perfect voice.
The new world for us began on the sort of early summer evening in New York when all you can think about is living. It was June 8, 2010, to be exact, the first day of his American book tour. I ran as fast as I could down East 93rd Street, suffused with joy and excitement at the sight of him in his white suit. He was dazzling. He was also dying, though we didn’t know it yet. And we wouldn’t know it for certain until the day of his death. . . Only he and I knew knew he might have cancer. We embraced in a shadow that only we saw and chose to defy. We were euphoric. He lifted me up and we laughed.
We went into the theatre, where he conquered yet another audience. We managed to get through a jubilant dinner in his honor and set on on a stroll back to our hotel through the perfect Manhattan night, walking more than fifty blocks. Everything was as it should be, except that it wasn’t. We were living in two worlds. The old one, which never seemed more beautiful, had not yet vanished; and the new one, about which we knew little except to fear it, had not yet arrived.
The new world lasted nineteen months. During this time of what he called “living dyingly”, he insisted ferociously on living, and his constitution, physical and philosophical, did all it could to stay alive.
Christopher was aiming to be among the 5 to 20 percent of those who could be cured. Without ever deceiving himself about his medical condition, and without ever allowing me to entertain illusions about his prospects for survival, he responded to every bit of clinical and statistical good news with radical, childlike hope. His will to keep his existence intact, to remain engaged with his preternatural intensity, was spectacular.
Christopher’s charisma never left him, not in any realm: not in public, not in private, not even in the hospital. He made a party of it, transforming the sterile, chilly, neon-lighted, humming and beeping and blinking room into a study and a salon. His artful conversation never ceased.
The constant interruptions: The poking and prodding, the sample taking, the breathing treatments, the IV bags being changed – nothing kept him from holding court, making a point or an argument or hitting a punchline for his “guests.” He listened and drew us out, and had us all laughing. He was always asking for and commenting on another newspaper, another magazine, another novel, another review copy. We stood around his bed and reclined on plastic upholstered chairs as he made us into participants in his Socratic discourses.
When he was admitted to the hospital for the last time, we thought it would be for a brief stay. He thought -we all thought- he’d have the chance to write the longer book that was forming in his mind. His intellectual curiosity was sparked by genomics and the cutting-edge proton radiation treatments he underwent, and he was encouraged by the prospect that his case could contribute to future medical breakthroughs. He told an editor friend waiting for an article, “Sorry for the delay, I’ll be back home soon.” He told me he couldn’t wait to catch up on all the movies he had missed and to see the King Tut exhibition in Houston, our temporary residence.
The end was unexpected.
I miss his perfect voice. I miss the first happy trills when he woke; the low octaves of “his morning voice” as he read me snippets from the newspaper that outraged or amused him; the delighted and irritated (mostly irritated) registers as I interrupted him while he read; the jazz-tone riffs of him “talking down the line” to a radio station from the kitchen phone as he cooked lunch, his chirping, high-note greeting when our daughter came home from school; and his last soothing, pianissimo chatterings on retiring late at night.
I miss his writer’s voice, his voice on the page. I miss the unpublished Hitch also: the countless notes he left for me in the entryway, on my pillow, the emails he would send while we sat in different rooms and the emails he sent when he was on the road. And I miss his innumerable letters, postcards, faxes and instant dispatches from some dicey spot on another continent.
His last words of the unfinished fragmentary jottings at the end of this little book may seem, to trail off, but in fact they were written on his computer in bursts of energy and enthusiasm as he sat in the hospital using his food tray for a desk.
Back home in Washington, I pull books off the shelves, out of the book towers on the floor, off the stacks of volumes on tables. Inside the back covers are notes written in his hand that he took for reviews and for himself. Piles of his papers and notes lie on surfaces all around the apartment. At any time I can peruse our library or his notes and rediscover and recover him.
When I do, I hear him, and he has the last word. Time after time, Christopher has the last word.