One of Us
“Isn’t that so sad,” I said more as a declaration than expecting someone to agree.
I had to admit, my friend was right and his perspective made me pause to think more about the heartache that was palpable on the web. It would have been stupefying if he had passed away suddenly and without warning. But we had warning and the man I was lamenting had brought us along with him during his final year and a half with his usual critical brilliance and unwavering nerve.
The man I’m referring to, of course, is Christopher Hitchens who died in December. And his death, while talked about openly by Hitchens himself, nevertheless made many of us entreat (dare I say pray) that death would spare him for as long as possible.
I was genuinely sad and mystified because it seemed embarrassing on some level. I didn’t know the man and, while I followed his progress since he announced his illness, I had assumed he would be here for several more years yet. We lost a couple of his books to the Katrina floods, so maybe it was my sentimentality getting the best of me. But when I saw the video of him at an atheist convention in Texas in October, the limitation of a cure and the cancer’s persistence had made it impossible to pretend that he could have gone on much longer, much less beaten it. He was a mere slip of himself, but the thrill he could still evoke in the crowd was manifest. I wish I’d been in that crowd.
When these same tears occurred again a few weeks ago during another sleepless night, I realized that maybe I should write my own version of a tribute, since all secular websites worth anything have posted something about this lost horseman of non-belief. I can start by saying that, while his death wasn’t unexpected, the finality is what gripped me and made me mourn openly someone I have never met.
A fond memory of Hitchens that makes me smile every time is his strange and glorious observation that appeared in one of his early columns for Vanity Fair in September 2010 when he candidly talked about his June diagnosis. “The Topic of Cancer” was a bold and fierce examination of cancer and, while I could never hope to pull off such vulnerability and acute descriptions with as much defiance, Hitchens made it a cerebral partnership for us all.
His comments on the side effects of chemotherapy: “Or for the way that my newly smooth upper lip would begin to look as if it had undergone electrolysis, causing me to look a bit too much like somebody’s maiden auntie. (The chest hair that was once the toast of two continents hasn’t yet wilted, but so much of it was shaved off for various hospital incisions that it’s a rather patchy affair.)”
Another interesting tidbit is my own “one degree” of separation. A colleague I used to work with at a weekly publication (and to whom I was once tethered during one of those arduous team building adventure/climbing courses) wrote about having drinks and conversation with Hitchens one on one. “J.” was at an industry convention and won a category in which his writing had been judged by none other than Hitchens himself. He was also a featured speaker that day and while J. had tried to edge close enough to speak with him afterwards, the adoring onlookers made it impossible.
In what may be one of the most spectacular feats of daring that I’d like to think I would have done if I’d been in his shoes, J. decided to call Hitchens at his home to request a few moments to express his appreciation. That Hitchens’ home phone number was listed in a Washington, D.C. phone directory is like something out of a Hollywood script, don’t you think?
When my father was dying of lung cancer, I remember my brothers and I discussed that a parent’s death, at whatever age you are when it happens, makes you very aware that you are next. It might not happen for another 50 years, but you are mortal and here’s the proof. One thought that kept popping into my head was that Hitchens’ was one of us and now he is gone. He was an unlikely guardian for those of us who enjoyed and needed to hear his thoughts on being an atheist. In spite of the criticisms that he probably deserved, he made us proud to call him on of the tribe. And he slipped away, but not before he moved us with his humanity and intelligence.
If you missed the final tribute in Vanity Fair by his long-time friend, Salman Rushdie, here it is. I think we all want to be loved by our good friends as much as Rushdie clearly did Hitchens.
I still wonder what provokes my tears for him even today. But I’m at an age where I wantonly hate that we’re all mortal. I like to think that Hitchens made our movement, if I can call it that, stronger and more invincible, just like the man himself.
Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;”