I read this book in a few hours yesterday afternoon, and though it was not quite what I expected, I was drawn in by his composure. This is a book about dying. Hitchens is dying of esophageal cancer. He takes us along with him, describing his ordeal with raw honesty minus self-pity and dramatization. We see and feel his pain, and we experience his frustration as he discovers that each hopeful therapy will not cure his metastasized cancer. But it feels more like a story about experiencing and dying from cancer than about accepting death.
I thought this was going to be a book about how Hitchens faced terminal disease without God or religion (the books jacket says “Hitchens bravely and adamantly refused the solace of religion”). That’s what made me want to read it. But it seems less about his atheism than about his general philosophy of life and his 18 months of treatment. He calls it “dying livingly,” in which he faces death but maintains his wit, wisdom, and words. Though he is known primarily for his huge body historical and political writing (numerous books, articles, and columns at Vanity Fair), I’m mostly familiar with his anti-religion writing. So I’m curious as to why, in his book about dying, he really doesn’t delve into the subject of spiritualism and the need (or lack thereof) for its comfort. He touches on it a few times, but he seems to avoid going too deeply. Maybe it’s because he has no time for perspective. He has no time to look back on the experience and offer insights that have simmered in his head. He dies before the book actually ends, and the last chapter consists of thoughts and sketches of ideas rather than finished prose. Or maybe it’s because he seems to feel this disease was inevitable. After all, his father died from it, and Hitchens was a life-long smoker. That esophageal cancer is a likely outcome for someone with his lifestyle choices in some ways takes the shock factor out of the story and along with it, the need for solace. I feel like it allows him to accept his mortality without seeking answers to the question why me? He answers it simply: why not me? For most people though, the answer is not that simple.
Where Hitchens hits a personal chord is the several times he writes about the very experiences I’ve written about in my so far unpublished writing about cancer treatment, such as the “How are you feeling” questions from the oncology staff in which we wonder how we are expected to answer (usually on one line) after weeks of diarrhea, constipation, neuropathy, nausea, dry skin, mouth sores, and more. Do they really want an answer to that? I used to sum it up by writing “okay.” He also suggests an etiquette book for non-cancer sufferers. I’ve written about that exact idea: tips for what NOT to say or ask. It’s amazing what people will say, thinking it’s helpful. To be honest, I feel like Hitchens stole some of my thunder, leaving me wondering if I can include descriptions of those same experiences in my own writing now that he’s offered them in his. Of course he does it far better than I ever could. Sometimes I read a sentence and think, how does he do that? How does he say it so perfectly? We have much to learn from his ideas and from his way with words. He will be greatly missed. (nonfiction).