I forget the first article I read of Christopher Hitchens‘. It was most likely something he wrote in support of the war in Iraq right around 2003 or so, when I was doing – even by my own standards – a bit more political reading than might be healthy. It was not long before I discovered that Hitchens was, among other things, a pretty staunch atheist, and has since been labeled as being a standard-bearer in what is known as the New Atheist movement. I read one of his books on atheism and was turned off by it on a number of fronts, none of which I care to discuss here, as every time I stray into the grounds of sex, religion or politics, I seem to earn myself at least one more letter politely requesting to unsubscribe from National Underwriter.
The reason why I am mentioning Hitchens (or “Hitch,” as his friends and fans call him) at all is because he is currently experiencing advanced esophogeal cancer and is likely to die soon. In a recent New York Times article, we can see a man who not only is showing the physical signs of a mortal battle with cancer, but a man who is also racing against the clock to produce as much of his life’s work as he possibly can before it is too late.
I found Hitchen’s late-stage life and how he has prioritized it to be fascinating. When I stayed with my father during the week or so he was in hospice last April, I was given a remarkable booklet entitled Gone From My Sight: The Dying Experience, which described the kinds of details about dying we never are told by anybody until we are at somebody’s deathbed. The booklet not only describes the process of dying itself, and how the body gives up in degrees, but it went alongside the messages given to me from the hospice itself: that as my father, and patients like him grew less and less responsive, it was because he simply needed his body less than before. With each passing moment, we was that much more ready to take a step from this world to the next, and so, they explained, he responded to us in the room less and less and less until finally he was no longer there at all. That is why people with terminal illness often lose interest in things like the daily news, even if they themselves don’t quite know why. That Hitchens is trying to bang out one more book says much about how much life he has left; that he feels such a different sense of urgency about it says even more about how little he has left. It is a moment we will all reach.
When I read of Hitchens and how he seems to be trying to work even harder, writing even more, as his final days approach, I thought, this is clearly a person who still feels there is much to be done, and as a fellow writer and editor, I feel where Hitchens is coming from. Nothing speeds the pen like a deadline, and Hitchens is under the most inflexible one of all. His efforts reminded me of that of Terry Pratchett, the beloved science fiction and fantasy author. When he learned he had Alzheimer’s Disease a few years ago, he announced to his fans his intent to finish as many of his open projects as possible so he might give to his loyal readers as much of himself as he could while he still could. It is not at all unlike what we have been seeing from film critic Roger Ebert, whose near-death experience a few years ago left him without a lower jaw and totally unable to eat or speak, and so he has redoubled his efforts as a writer and is arguably more prolific now than he ever has been. Part of Ebert’s volume is that he has no other outlet. Part of it surely is his acute awareness of his own mortality. There is something about writers never quite feeling they have nothing left to say, and so we struggle to get one last page in before the deadline, however huge and towering it may be.
Whether it is our health or our life that is ending, we strive to ensure we have taken care of everything that needs taking care of. It is a most human impulse, especially for anyone who has loved ones and a desire to see that they are cared for. How deep a comfort it is to know the life and health industry is there to see to those needs — whether to help one recover from illness or to provide for friends and families after passing from this world — so that when the time comes and we are wholly consumed with that desire to spend our last moments focusing on what is most important to us, we can do so knowing that worldly matters have already been laid to rest.
To face our end with dignity. Can there be any greater challenge to our humanity, or any greater testament to the human spirit? Christopher Hitchens is about to find out. So must we all. How awful it would be, though, to enter those final days worried about something as pointless to the dying as wealth. Far better to resolve such things well in advance, so when the end comes, concerns such as those are far from everyone’s mind until it becomes prudent to dwell on them once more.