It saddens me to a certain extent that the very first book I read by Christopher Hitchens should also be his last. Originally published posthumously by Twelve, Mortality offers one of the last insights into the mind of a journalist who by way was also a socialite, an intellect and an iconoclast, amongst other things. While this may have been his last book to have been published, there are certainly enough other books that precede this one, should I feel the desire to pick up any of his other writings. He was quite a prolific writer, after all. Recommended to me by a good friend, I sat down with Mortality periodically and read about the difficulties Hitchens faced, not just with the discomforts from dying of cancer but also of the struggles he endured to maintain his sense of humanity. It does not matter if you are reading about his antics with a disgruntled believer or if you are reading about the day he learned of his terminal illness, his ability to pull the reader into his world is a testament to his prowess as a writer. I felt more like I was having a conversation with him rather than reading his book. If his other works are anything like this one, I can understand why so many reviewers either loved him or hated him. He seemed to be quite the controversial character in his lifetime. I do not know much about him, aside from the references made by many for his views on atheism and religion. While these were a central theme in his book — after all, he defends his views against critics and haters, even with the face of death staring him down– he is not limited to discussing them only. I believe he makes these references more out of spite to his opponents and to maintain his reputation for the debate until the bitter end. I did not read this book, though, for his religious views, per say. I was more concerned with something else when I picked up this book to read it. The reason why it was referred to me in the first place was because of a particular point in his discussion where Hitchens describes the feelings he has about losing his voice to esophageal cancer. Like Hitchens, my mother lost her voice three years ago, only for other somatic reasons.
I was curious to learn what he had to say about this. I have never really found much in the way of popular commentary on what life is like for someone who has been struck dumb by an illness, but it happens all the time. My grandfather had his throat box removed and replaced with a voice box implant, along with countless other people throughout the world; however, what happens to them socially? This is something that is seldom discussed, even amongst the closest of friends, unless you know someone personally who suffers from such a dilemma. This is what Hitchens was afraid of the most, the fear that by losing his voice to cancer he would lose his ability to write. He confirms this by saying, “Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I ‘was’ my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation… were innate and essential to me” (48). I have often wondered if this is how my mother feels. You do not have to be a renowned writer like Hitchens to dread losing your voice. We are all human beings capable of socializing with each other, but when a voice that was always there suddenly disappears, it is easy to fall into isolation and despair.
It has taken my mother a long time to come to terms with this. She has been told by multiple doctors multiple possibilities. It was only a year ago that her health problems were resolved, but it was too late for her voice. It is all but a wisp that she struggles to express beyond her lips. She has better days than others, but it is straining to say the least. She told me that the most discouraging part is how most people immediately distance themselves from her. When she would order from a restaurant, she would have to write down her order because the waiter/ress could not hear her speak. When her food was served, it was always incorrect. She tried at first to get her order corrected, however, over time the difficulties she faced with this forced her to be silent. Hitchens talks about this, too. It is something I never thought about before, and having since listened to her stories and having read Hitchen’s account, I try to be exactly the opposite of what he “can’t stand.” He writes, “Timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that. Now if I want to enter a conversation, I have to attract attention in some other way, and live with the awful fact that people are then listening ‘sympathetically.’ At least they don’t have to pay attention for long: I can’t keep it up and anyway can’t stand to” (48). Before my mother and I used Skype to video conference with one another, we would talk on the phone for as little as fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. I can only imagine for her what a conversation must have been like with a stranger, what with our phone calls back then being so short-lived. Video conferencing through Skype has been the best medicine for us both since she first lost her voice. Now over long distance, we can finally “talk” to one another.
To end this, I want to draw attention to the very way that Hitchens ends his own book. His final words, from a memoir’s perspective anyway, are quoting Alan Lightman’s Einstein’s Dreams. He quotes:
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 of their mothers. No one ever comes into his own…(original emphasis) Such is the cost of immortality. No person is whole. No person is free (qtd. in Hitchens 93).
Sons and daughters may never be able to escape from their parents’ influence, but neither can parents from their children. We have to be there for one another, through “thick and thin.” Family is blood. An incredible ending to an incredible author. Requiescat in pace.
Hitchens, Christopher. Mortality. New York: Twelve (Hachette Book Group), 2012. Print.