I’ve just received my Kindle copy of Mortality, the book that was largely written by Christopher Hitchens while he fought to stay alive against the curse of cancer. The first chapter reminds me yet again that he was the finest wordsmith of this generation, the equal of Mencken and Vidal in earlier ones. This passage is simply perfect:
The notorious stage theory of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, whereby one progresses from denial to rage through bargaining to depression and the eventual bliss of “acceptance,” hasn’t so far had much application to my case. In one way, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me. Rage would be beside the point for the same reason. Instead, I am badly oppressed by the gnawing sense of waste. I had real plans for my next decade and felt I’d worked hard enough to earn it. Will I really not live to see my children married? To watch the World Trade Center rise again? To read — if not indeed to write — the obituaries of elderly villains like Henry Kissinger and Joseph Ratzinger? But I understand this sort of non-thinking for what it is: sentimentality and self-pity. Of course my book hit the bestseller list on the day that I received the grimmest of news bulletins, and for that matter the last flight I took as a healthy-feeling person (to a fine, big audience at the Chicago Book Fair) was the one that made me a million-miler on United Airlines, with a lifetime of free upgrades to look forward to. But irony is my business and I just can’t see any ironies here: Would it be less poignant to get cancer on the day that my memoirs were remaindered as a box-office turkey, or that I was bounced from a coach-class flight and left on the tarmac? To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?
Such wit, such stoicism and such a clear view of the essentially random nature of life, all expressed so perfectly. I can only wish futilely that, on my very best day, I could write as well as he did with a chemotherapy IV in his arm. And yes, it is a damn shame that the likes of Kissinger and Ratzinger outlived him, if for no other reason than because it would be such fun to read the obituaries he would write for them. It’s quite similar to the regret I feel at the fact that Bill Hicks did not live long enough to see, and give us his thoughts on, the second President Bush and the various miscreants that have followed.