Saturday, January 19, 2013

Christoper Hitchens by Carol Blue

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.

*Saul Bellow


  1. Aubade
    By Philip Larkin
    I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
    Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
    In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
    Till then I see what’s really always there:
    Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
    Making all thought impossible but how
    And where and when I shall myself die.
    Arid interrogation: yet the dread
    Of dying, and being dead,
    Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.

    The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
    —The good not done, the love not given, time
    Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
    An only life can take so long to climb
    Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
    But at the total emptiness for ever,
    The sure extinction that we travel to
    And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
    Not to be anywhere,
    And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.

    This is a special way of being afraid
    No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
    That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
    Created to pretend we never die,
    And specious stuff that says No rational being
    Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
    That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
    No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
    Nothing to love or link with,
    The anaesthetic from which none come round.

    And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
    A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
    That slows each impulse down to indecision.
    Most things may never happen: this one will,
    And realisation of it rages out
    In furnace-fear when we are caught without
    People or drink. Courage is no good:
    It means not scaring others. Being brave
    Lets no one off the grave.
    Death is no different whined at than withstood.

    Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
    It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
    Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
    Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
    Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to
    In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
    Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
    The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
    Work has to be done.
    Postmen like doctors go from house to house.


    Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
    Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
    Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
    And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
    Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
    But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
    Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
    Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
    Gas! Gas! Quick, boys! – An ecstasy of fumbling,
    Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
    But someone still was yelling out and stumbling,
    And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime . . .
    Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light,
    As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
    In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
    He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
    If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
    Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
    And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
    His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
    If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
    Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
    Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
    Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,
    My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
    To children ardent for some desperate glory,
    The old Lie; Dulce et Decorum est
    Pro patria mori.

    Wilfred Owen
    8 October 1917 - March, 1918

  3. Torture

    by Wislawa Szymborska, translated, from the Polish, by Joanna Trzeciak

    Nothing has changed.
    The body is painful,
    it must eat, breathe air and sleep,
    it has thin skin, with blood right beneath,
    it has a goodly supply of teeth and nails
    its bones are brittle, its joints extensible.
    In torture, all this is taken into account.
    Nothing has changed.
    The body trembles, as it trembled
    before and after the founding of Rome,
    in the twentieth century before and after Christ. Torture is, as it's always been, only the earth has shrunk, and whatever happens, feels like it happens next door. Nothing has changed. Only there are more people,
    next to old transgressions, new ones have appeared
    real, alleged, momentary, none,
    but the scream, the body's response to them-- was, is, and always will be the scream of innocence, in accord with the age-old scale and register.
    Nothing has changed.
    Except maybe manners, ceremonies, dances.
    Yet the gesture of arms shielding the head
    has remained the same.
    The body writhes, struggles, and tries to break away.
    Bowled over, it falls, pulls in its knees,
    bruises, swells, drools, and bleeds.
    Nothing has changed.
    Except for the courses of rivers,
    the contours of forests, seashores, deserts and icebergs.
    Among these landscapes the poor soul winds,
    vanishes, returns, approaches, recedes.
    A stranger to itself, evasive,
    at one moment sure, the next unsure of its existence,
    while the body is and is and is
    and has no place to go.

  4. With infinite life comes an infinite list of relatives. Grandparents never die, nor do great-grandparents, great aunts . . . and so on, back through generations, all alive and offering advice. Sons never escape from the shadows of their fathers,. Nor do daughters their mothers. No one ever comes into their own . . . such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free.- "Einstein's Dream" by Alan Lightman.