Christopher Hitchens takes us to his death, yes, but he does not leave us there in "Mortality." Instead, he intercedes with a chapter that argues for the most optimistic and powerful response not only to his diseased condition, but to all of us, as humans at home on this planet, we have life, and also death - "Mortality" - they come together.
Starting with the American poet, T.S.Eliot, from his poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," Hitchens quotes these few lines: "I have seen the moment of my greatness flicker, And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker, And in short, I was afraid." He then goes on about the disease, in detail, strongly implying that he is the one who is "afraid" telling us it is his voice that has failed him, and sews themes together about the disease, his feelings, and a brief piece from Leonard Cohen, "If it be your will, That I speak no more, And my voice be still, As it was before."
One may say that Mr. Hitchens listens, as if the disease is talking to him through these poems. But instead of losing his voice, he vividly recalls an incident that made his career when someone told him that his early articles were boring and that he should write the way he speaks. And then Mr. Hitchens turns to his readers telling us how he incorporated that advice in his classes by starting with "anybody who could talk could also write," and follows with the intensifying challenge, "I mean really talk?" And provides examples to us of "the spoken, unscripted moments of interplay and reason and speculation"; "to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off." And reminds us of where he is now and why: "My chief consolation in this year of living dyingly has been the presence of friends ... only for the blessed chance to talk."
This breakthrough about talk is elaborated in the book as he develops as a teacher and a creative writer. As he brings together in memory how important the voice, whether spoken or written or read, is one's identity, therefore one's life. And though the experience, the disease, the pain gradually took more of his time. The one example that indicates how the disease was taking over was the time it took to get blood samples. The number of attempts tried by different nurses for about four hours, took an "expert" to his 12th attempt, successfully, only after moving the needle from one arm to another, from vein to vein, struggling to force the needle away from slippery flesh and collapsed veins. Mr. Hitchens then tells us that he "had to stop pretending that the business was effectively painless," and to dramatize the irony, he writes that "the 'battle' against cancer is reduced to a struggle to get a few drops of gore," and takes it to a visual level, that he "was lying between two bed-pads ... laced with dried or clotting blood," and then takes it to a higher level with the word "torture."
Where does this take us? To the main theme of life over the destructiveness of pain, even while he is dying an ignoble, painful death. But he has come to understand "This above all: Find your own voice," not just a sound, but a vital reach of "mimicry and parody," "wit and understatement," - this is the meaningful, the creative mind, and what is spontaneous, complexity upon complexity out of the simplicity of friendship, which is in the act of conversation, "sheer pleasure and recreation ... with reason and humor to produce higher syntheses." And, "To lose this ability ... is assuredly to die more than a little. This is the most humanly meaningful section, and takes the book above the dying, reaching out to the reader in a validly simple, yet deeply challenging "talk" of his own.
Finally, in pain, what he also calls "Medical Torture," impervious to the shots and pills - the "painkillers" distributed by the "pain management team," toward the end, he brings death and life together, each creating the other in the final passages of the book, with the clear honesty of what the book is intended to be, of what the title tells us, the glorious fact that arouses us to the life we cannot keep, but which we have - now. Yes, we have, and must "REMEMBER, YOU TOO ARE MORTAL"- Mr. Hitchens' last reminder of life and death, but now the emphasis of the meaning is on the reader.
George Sebouhian is a Fredonia resident.