Christopher Hitchins’ death on December 15 makes it time to share this story of a Celebrity Encounter at the June, 2011 BEA (Book Expo America). Maybe encounter is too strong a word. More like two ships passing in the night.
I had bought a ticket for the breakfast, which begins early in the morning, but I did not purchase the food, but only a seat on the perimeter, as per usual. You still get the free books…if they are giving them out. (Last year, only chapters of books, not entire books). Other years, free copies of “The Kite Runner,” etc.
Because all the seats on the perimeter appeared to be occupied, I saw a group of people who were going up some stairs through a door near the back of the hall. They began climbing upwards. In my mind, I envisioned a balcony or loggia, like a church choir loft, if you will, and one of the men in the party was carrying a glass which was obviously booze, as it had a little parasol in it. This was approximately 9 a.m. and I remember thinking that that individual must really like to party hearty! I decided to follow the group and went through the same door and began climbing.
At about the second landing, I caught a glimpse of the group ahead of me and recognized Christopher Hitchens as the man carrying the drink. I also realized that I was, inadvertently, crashing the group of would-be speakers, who were apparently climbing to a behind-the-stage area where they would be introduced and seated.
I quietly tip-toed downstairs and took a seat on chairs at the back of the hall, the perimeter .
When Hitchens was introduced (by Patton Oswalt, the stand-up comedian who is now co-starring opposite Charlize Theron in “Young Adult”) he strode to the microphone and recited several dirty limericks, most of them by heart. As I recall, he also said something about homosexual hi-jinks in an English boarding school, but his entire demeanor was very preoccupied and grim. He then left, with Patton Oswalt explaining that he “had to catch a plane” or some such. Keep in mind, this was about 7 months before he would die of esophageal cancer, and he had known he was probably terminally ill for a year and a half before he died quite recently, of pneumonia from complications of the disease.
In the January issue of “Vanity Fair” Hitchens’ final essay appears, entitled “Trial of the Will.” He debunks the saying, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and even speculated that Nietzsche, to whom the quote is attributed, might have stolen it from Goethe. Hitchens gives a brief thumbnail capsule of Nietzsche’s life. To wit: “In the remainder of his life, however, .Nietzsche seems to have caught an early dose of syphilis, very probably during his first-ever sexual encounter, which gave him crushing migraine headaches and attacks of blindness and metastasized into dementia and paralysis. This, while it did not kill him right away, certainly contributed to his death and cannot possibly, in the meanwhile, be said to have made him stronger.” More details of Nietzche’s life are provided by the terminally ill writer and, of his own condition he said, “And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: if I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.”
Hitchens, who was an avowed atheist and told Anderson Cooper that, if he heard stories that, on his deathbed he had recanted and “gotten religion,” he should not believe such reports. He recounted a poem by John Betjeman called “Five O’Clock Shadow:”
This is the time of day when we in the Men’s Ward
Think: “One more surge of the pain and I give up the fight.”
When he who struggles for breath can struggle less strongly.
This is the time of day that is worse than night.”
Added Hitchens, “I have come to know that feeling all right: the sensation and conviction that the pain will never go away and that the wait for the next fix is unjustly long. Then a sudden fit of breathlessness, followed by some pointless coughing and then—if it’s a lousy day—by more expectoration than I can handle. Pints of old saliva, occasional mucus, and what the hell do I need heartburn for at this exact moment? It’s not as if I have eaten anything: a tube delivers all my nourishment. All of this, and the childish resentment that goes with it, constitutes a weakening. So does the amazing weight loss that the tube seems unable to combat. I have now lost almost a third of my body mass since the cancer was diagnosed: it may not kill me, but the atrophy of muscle makes it harder to take even the simple exercises without which I’ll become more enfeebled still.”
And Hitchens added, “I am typing this having just had an injection to try to reduce the pain in my arms, hand, and fingers. The chief side effect of this pain is numbness in the extremities, filling me with the not irrational fear that I shall lose the ability to write. Without that ability, I feel sure in advance, my ‘will to live’ would be hugely attenuated. I often grandly say that writing is not just my living and my livelihood, but my very life, and it’s true. Almost like the threatened loss of my voice, which is currently being alleviated by some temporary injections into my vocal folds, I feel my personality and identity dissolving as I contemplate dead hands and the loss of the transmission belts that connect me to writing and thinking.”
“These are progressive weaknesses that in a more normal life might have taken decades to catch up with me. But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less. In other words, the process both etiolates you and moves you nearer toward death. How could it be otherwise?”
And how could the end have been other than it was. Christopher Hitchens, dead at 62.