For 18 months, while undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens chronicled his year of "living dyingly" in a series of essays for Vanity Fair. Those essays, as well as never-before published notes from the end of his life, are compiled in the posthumous book Mortality.
The columnist, author and avowed atheist died Dec. 15. Carol Blue, Hitchens' wife of 20 years, shares memories of her husband and moments from their final days together in the book's afterword.
"He never once complained privately throughout this odyssey," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He really stayed very much himself, but in a diminished and sometimes sad form. But he wrote and he read and he talked, and he was a father and he was a husband and he was a friend, as he had been before. It was really quite extraordinary."
She talks about the treatments, his beliefs and the fiery spirit that he exhibited to his last day.
On his cancer treatments
"In the book, he describes the process of receiving this wonderful form of radiation that's only available in a few hospitals, called proton radiation. And its beauty is that the atoms behave differently.
"So, normal radiation, the photons enter the body, burning their way through all the good tissue, hit the mark and then burn their way out — whereas, with proton, it deposits almost no radiation on the way in, hits the target, the tumor, with all of its power and then stops.
"So you're able to really use much higher doses and spare all the normal tissue. That being said, it still hurt him very much in his esophagus after the treatment, and he would wince with pain when he was swallowing, and he was very, very stoic. ...
"The esophagus repaired, the pain stopped. ... So retrospectively, he would say, of course it was worth it. And he wanted to live at almost any cost, as long as he had his marbles and his voice."
On using battle terminology to describe 'fighting cancer'
"He said, 'I'm not fighting it; it's fighting me.' And he also said, rightly, that this wasn't a battle he volunteered for. Actually, he didn't like the word 'battle,' but this wasn't a struggle he entered into voluntarily. He had no choice. ... You can't be courageous, necessarily, about something that's forced upon you, upon which you have no choice. I think he was quite courageous in the way he handled that struggle."
On whether he re-evaluated his atheism
"It really didn't come up at the end at all. I mean, of course it was an end he didn't know was an end, but nonetheless it just wasn't of interest. ... He was asking for various poems and books, and of course he was very interested in his family and full of love for them. And it just didn't register. ...
"I think the only thing Christopher thought was ... why would it be thought to be a good thing that out of fear at the very last moment you would allegedly change your convictions and your beliefs of a lifetime?"
On the day he died
"He was sick for a long time, but the ending was rather like getting a phone call and being told your husband has died in a car crash. He didn't expect the ending when it came. ..."
"He had really kind of surprised his oncologist by how well he was doing in knocking back the cancer, and he had been afforded the kind of state-of-the-art treatments that aren't available to almost anyone, even in the best hospitals in the country. And then he caught a very virulent pneumonia ... which was only diagnosed a few days before and was sort of starting to get better, but it won out in the end."
NEAL CONAN, HOST:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, broadcasting today from NPR West in Culver City, California. For 18 months, as he suffered treatment for the cancer that would take his life, Christopher Hitchens continued to do what he'd always done: He talked and argued, debated and provoked, and he wrote.
Trying to avoid sentimentality and self-pity, Hitchens produced a series of essays for Vanity Fair where he described his exile to what he called the Land of Malady or sometimes just Tumor Town. Today the painful subject of dying, and we want to hear from those of you now facing your own mortality.
Call and tell us: What have you learned in the process? 800-989-8255. Email us, email@example.com. You can also join the conversation at our website. Go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Later in the program, Senator Jim Webb on the looming crisis in the South China Sea.
But first, Christopher Hitchens' last book is called "Mortality." In her afterword, his wife, Carol Blue, wrote that her husband was an impossible act to follow. I'm sure she's right, but we'll try. Carol Blue is also contributing editor to Vanity Fair and joins us today from Studio 3A. Thanks very much for being with us, and as late as it is, our condolences.
CAROL BLUE: Oh, thank you, and thank you for having me, but no thank you for leaving me with another empty chair this week. I'm staring at an empty chair.
CONAN: I apologize for that.
BLUE: But I won't talk to it.
CONAN: Well, I will answer back, however. I have to tell you that Chris was such a familiar voice on this program. We really miss him.
BLUE: I don't blame you.
CONAN: The essay that hit me the hardest was the one about losing his voice. That may be because of what I do. But it was such a poignant part of what he did. As he said, his voice - it was so fascinating; he quoted an editor that once told him that a piece he'd written was dull and that he should try writing more like he talked.
BLUE: Yes, and that's the advice he gave to all of the young people who flocked around him around him who he spent a lot of time with. I'm not sure many of them could speak half as well as him. Who could? But his voice, he did briefly start to lose it. First that beautiful sonorous, Burtonesque voice started to rise and rise in pitch, and then it became very, very soft.
And then something that I'd never observed before, nor had anyone who'd ever been in his company, a dinner conversation would occur with him trying to break in. Luckily, he wrote that wonderful essay for Vanity Fair in an expanded form. It's in the book "Mortality." He wrote the piece. He closed the piece. He looked at the pages and edited them as they came up. And then about two days later, his voice came back.
So in fact he had his beautiful Hitchens voice until the very last day.
CONAN: That last day, you say in your afterword, came as a surprise.
BLUE: Yeah, he had really kind of surprised his oncologists by how well he was doing in knocking back the cancer, and he had been afforded the kind of state-of-the-art treatments that aren't available to almost anyone, even in the best hospitals in the country. And then he caught a very virulent pneumonia, so - which was only diagnosed a few days before and was sort of starting to get better, but it won out in the end.
CONAN: And not the first time he'd had pneumonia during this stretch either.
BLUE: No, no.
CONAN: There are a couple of things that I think everybody wonders about as they near the end, and one of them is the kinds of heroic treatments that he went through, whether they were worth it, and the incredible pain he said was involved in some of the treatments, the description of lying there with his body burned by radiation.
BLUE: Yeah. I think he thought without a doubt they were worth it. He says in the book, he describes the process of receiving this wonderful form of radiation that's only available in a few hospitals called proton radiation. And its beauty is that the atoms behave differently.
So normal radiation, the photons enter the body, burning their way through all the good tissue, hit the mark and then burn their way out. Whereas with proton, it deposits almost no radiation on the way in, hits the target, the tumor, with all of its power and then stops.
So you're able to really use much higher doses and spare all the normal tissue. That being said, it still hurt him very much in his esophagus after the treatment, and he would wince with pain when he was swallowing, and he was very, very stoic. He never complained throughout this entire odyssey.
But he then - the esophagus repaired, the pain stopped, and in fact we ultimately found ourselves having a sort of 20-course dinner in New York that went on for about 10 hours with Martin Amis by July. So retrospectively he would say of course it was worth it. And he wanted to live at almost any cost, as long as he had his marbles and his voice.
When he wrote about this was when he was in the middle of it, though.
CONAN: The other question that I think everybody wonders about is whether as a not merely confirmed atheist but a champion of atheism, Christopher Hitchens had any doubts. And it's interesting, back in 2007 when he published his biography of Thomas Paine, Thomas Paine's "Rights of Man" biography, he was on TALK OF THE NATION.
And I read a passage from the book that described Paine's death and the pressure that Paine faced to accept Jesus Christ. In Hitch's words:
(Reading) The same demand was made of him as his eyes were closing. Do you wish to believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God? He answered thus quite distinctly: I have no wish to believe on that subject. Thus he expired with his reason and his rights both still staunchly defended until the very last.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHRISTOPHER HITCHENS: It's rather well-written, I think, as I hear it from you, rather well-phrased.
Yes, I thought it was worth stressing because there was a time - actually, it still comes up occasionally, when the religious would say of anyone who'd ever written skeptically or with criticism of belief, ah, well, on their deathbed they asked for a priest and they tried to repent. And stories of this kind were spread about a number of people, and with Paine we happen to know - though the story was, of course, told about him - from superior eyewitnesses that it's not true.
And it reminds me also of the death of the great Scottish philosopher David Hume, who died, you may be interested to know, on the Fourth of July, 1776, a day that produced a revolution that he had long foreseen would come and supported, the American colonists' declaration against the crown.
But he knew he was dying and continued to maintain that there was nothing to fear in death, and James Boswell, the most famous biographer of all time, couldn't believe this and went - journeyed to go see him and sit with him and found to his astonishment, no, it is true. Dr. Hume is going, and he has no fear of the hereafter any more than he has fear of the time before he was born, when he didn't exist either.
And therefore these two great tributes to 18th and 19th-century stoicism and philosophy as against superstition and the exploitation of it.
CONAN: Christopher Hitchens on this program in 2007. Carol Blue, I had not thought of Burtonesque until listening back to that. You're absolutely right.
BLUE: But better than, don't you think?
CONAN: Well, I haven't heard him sing "Camelot" yet. But anyway, a lot of people will wonder: Was there ever a moment of doubt in his lack of faith?
BLUE: Well, Neal, if I might, first off, I mean listen to that. Is there any point in us continuing? Do you want to just slam in a tape of Christopher for the rest of the hour?
BLUE: But no, there never was. It's not that - it really didn't come up at the end at all. I mean, of course it was an end he didn't know was an end, but nonetheless it just wasn't of interest. He was interested in - well, he was asking for various poems and books, and of course he was very interested in his family and full of love for them. And it just didn't register.
CONAN: One of the things, one of the many things, I have to say, he said he learned or reconsidered through his illness, was that a phrase like, for example, anything that doesn't kill you makes you stronger, a phrase that he writes: I now wonder why I ever thought that was profound.
BLUE: rIGHT. Yeah, because he noticed that he was able to sort of get - he was very good at the struggle, and he could get through all of these dicey moments and painful treatments. But he felt rather diminished by them. So he thought it was rather a silly phrase.
CONAN: And he also wrote, I thought interestingly, about the etiquette of cancer and a few phrases we need to retire - for example, using battle terminology to describe the disease.
BLUE: Yeah, he said I'm not fighting it, it's fighting me. And he also said, rightly, that this wasn't a battle he volunteered for. Actually, he didn't like the word battle, but this wasn't a struggle he entered into voluntarily. He had no choice. So necessarily - you can't be courageous, necessarily, about something that's forced upon you, upon which you have no choice.
I think he was quite courageous in the way he handled that struggle.
CONAN: He was also very diligent in trying not to anthropomorphize his tumor, but he couldn't help himself.
BLUE: Yeah, I mean I suppose it gave him a small - he writes in the book that, you know, silly old tumor, it's going to - it's going to die with me. I mean, it creates its own death at the moment of its inception. So it wouldn't outlive him.
CONAN: The blind little alien burrowing inside, yes. Those turns of phrase - beyond the content, I'm going to miss that too.
BLUE: Yeah, well, I mean any - if you open this book to any page and start on any sentence, each of them is so beautifully crafted and so punchy, and you know, you're most welcome to quote from the book, or maybe I will. I don't know, but at least people have the chance to read it, so...
CONAN: Yeah, we'll quote a little bit when we come back from a short break. But we want to hear from - Carol Blue's going to stay with us, but we want to hear from those of you in the audience who are facing your own mortality. As you examine the process, what have you learned along the way? Give us a call, 800-989-8255. Email us, firstname.lastname@example.org. Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan. Christopher Hitchens died in December. In his final book, published posthumously, he described the barbarity and the banality of being treated for cancer and the at times surreal experiences about reading about himself.
(Reading) The alien was burrowing into me even as I wrote the jaunty words about my own prematurely announced death. Now so many tributes that it also seems that rumors of my life have also been greatly exaggerated. Lived to see most of what's going to be written about me. This, too, is exhilarating but hits diminishing returns when I realize how soon it, too, will be background.
Christopher Hitchens in a passage from "Mortality." You can read more from the book in an excerpt at our webpage. That's at npr.org. Our guest today is Carol Blue, Christopher Hitchens' widow and a contributing editor at Vanity Fair. She wrote the afterword to this last book. And we want to hear from those of you now facing your own mortality. Call and tell us: What have you learned in the process? 800-989-8255. Email is email@example.com. And you can join the conversation at our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.
And we'll start with Eden(ph), Eden with us from Tallahassee.
EDEN: Hello, how are you?
CONAN: I'm well, Eden.
EDEN: I wish I could be as eloquent as Mr. Hitchens about my cancer. I'm a late-stage ovarian cancer patient. The - I have about a 30 percent chance of surviving the next five years. And although, you know, that's a statistic, and it - that may or may not be what happens for me, it has really served to give a form and a structure to my life that I actually find very useful. It's been sort of a gift.
And though great - I've gotten great support from my community, it is the big elephant in the room that nobody wants to talk about. They're happy that I'm through the first stage of treatment, but this long-term prognosis is something that people are very uncomfortable with, even in terms of language.
CONAN: They don't want to mention it. A lot of euphemisms being thrown around?
EDEN: Not euphemisms as much as people just want me to say how strong I am now and how great the future is. And, you know, it's fine. That could be the future, but it may not be, and coming to terms with it has actually been one of the most enriching experiences of my life. But it's difficult for people to let that happen.
CONAN: Do you think they're afraid of offending you in some way?
EDEN: I think we're so acculturated to talking about cancer as if it's this battle that can be won if we just try hard enough. So I think people just don't know how to talk about it in a different way.
CONAN: I wonder, Carol Blue, the - there's this wonderful passage in the notes at the end of "Mortality," the unfinished chapter - also expressions like expiration date, will I outlive my AmEx, my driver's license. People say I'm in town on Friday. Will you be around? What a question! All in caps.
BLUE: Yeah, well, I would say two things. One, with statistics, a wonderful doctor at MD Anderson had told Christopher and I at one point, you know, really the statistics are zero or a hundred percent for you, because either you will be cured or you will die. So in a way that's true for everybody.
And then the second thing is, I think Christopher was an extremely optimistic, positive person, and any time he got any good news from the doctors, he really seized on it. And we were told - I don't - I mean, obviously I don't - I think it's a materialist matter that these aberrant cells start growing in your body, but evidently, and I thought I would never say this, but a certain kind of attitude, a kind of desperation to stay alive, can't hurt the cause, at least when you're undergoing a really grueling treatment.
But anyway, what - I wanted to read just a brief little bit from the book to show you just how optimistic he was whenever he got some good news, and even though he didn't kind of sugarcoat it, he didn't, as you, the caller, suggest, try to push good news when it might not be in order.
CONAN: Go ahead.
BLUE: He said - OK. This is at the end of his piece we discussed where he talked about, as we now know, very temporarily losing his voice. And he was describing his grueling proton radiation treatments. He says: So now every day I go to a waiting room and watch the awful news from Japan on cable TV, often closed-captioned, just to torture myself, and wait impatiently for a high dose of protons to be fired into my body at two-thirds the speed of light.
What do I hope for? If not a cure then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.
And so he was always looking at the bright side of the statistics is, I guess, what I want to say, and I'm not sure what good, I wonder - I would ask the caller: What good would come of them saying gee, this sounds bad, the odds are high that you won't be with us in four years.
I mean, would there be any advantage to hearing that, do you think?
EDEN: Not exactly. What I'm looking for more is for people to say - or for people to recognize that this is an enriching experience that's helping shape my life, make choices, deepen values, strengthen connections. I mean, I've just stopped, you know, putting off things that I was always going to do, and I'm doing them, and I'm really investing in friendships.
And that's the motivating force. And I'd like people to recognize the richness that can come out of this experience, not for everybody. And I'm not, you know, hugely ill right now. So, you know, this is a time when I can, I think, be more optimistic about it. But I'd like people to recognize the gifts that it has brought.
BLUE: Well, I must say I didn't think it was a gift, and I'm sure my husband didn't, but everyone's different.
CONAN: Yeah, he...
BLUE: But he was living life to the fullest. He certainly didn't need illness to...
CONAN: He's not a person who needed an organizing principle, no.
BLUE: No, no.
CONAN: Eden, thanks very much for the call, good luck to you.
EDEN: Thank you, thank you.
CONAN: Let's see if we can go next to - this is - ah, Victoria(ph), Victoria's with us from Hilton Head in South Carolina.
CONAN: Hi, Victoria.
VICTORIA: I just wanted to comment that I loved listening to Mr. Hitchens because I was a stage IIIB - I'm a cancer survivor, but I had only a 10 percent chance of survival when I was first diagnosed. And I never, ever for a moment - I had so many friends say please go to church with me, and I never for a moment ever wavered in my lack of belief in anything. And it shocked and surprised so many people that - I would have people tell me that they were going to pray for me and everything else, and I took that as a compliment that they cared about me, but, you know, someone said earlier in the commentary well, did his belief ever - did he ever have a moment at the end where he wavered in his belief. And I think if you don't believe, you don't believe. So it was just very interesting for me to hear that.
CONAN: Carol Blue, he wrote very interestingly about all the believers who approached him through the illness.
BLUE: Yeah, well, actually there was also - they designated a Pray for Christopher Hitchens Day, which he thought was amusing, and he didn't mind it, and he certainly didn't mind all the good will behind the prayers, at least those prayers that were for his recovery.
VICTORIA: And I did feel the same way. I was very, you know, happy that people cared about me enough to want to do that. But it didn't in - so many people thought it would somehow make me waver in my, I guess, lack of belief, and I didn't. It is - you know, I just had so many people trying to sway me that way, and wouldn't you sway this way at this point.
And if you're not of that thought, it just doesn't change.
BLUE: No. Well, actually, I think he wrote at some point about "Brideshead Revisited," and you remember the end of the book is that last-minute conversion of Lord Marchmont, and it's rather a repulsive scene, actually. I mean, the priest is pushed on him, and yeah, I think the only thing Christopher thought was if - why would it - why would it be thought to be a good thing that out of fear, at the very last moment, you would allegedly change your convictions and your beliefs of a lifetime.
CONAN: Victoria, good luck.
VICTORIA: Thank you so much.
CONAN: Thanks very much for the call.
VICTORIA: Thank you, bye-bye.
CONAN: This is an email that we have from Alan(ph): My mother's currently fighting a second bout of cancer that originated in her breast 17 years ago. I don't know how to talk to her about all of this, and I want to so badly. I want to know what she wants for her memorial, if she's scared, if she needs anything. It's so hard for all of us. We don't know what to do.
I'm sure you had friends. I mean, Christopher had some of the most articulate, erudite friends on the planet...
CONAN: ...but I'm sure some of them have found this subject a little difficult.
BLUE: Well, at some point someone asked him about a memorial, and he said I don't really - I don't really care to have one. And then he said, but you know, whatever any - whatever makes anybody who remains happy. So that was the extent of the conversation.
But again, he - remember, he was sick for a long time, but the ending was rather like getting a phone call and being told your husband has died in a car crash. He didn't expect the ending when it came, so perhaps he might have picked out some passages for the children to read or something like that if he really thought he was near the end. But it's - I wouldn't be nervous about bringing up the subject. You should just ask.
CONAN: Let's see. We go next to - this is Zach(ph), and Zach with us from Tulsa.
ZACH: Yes, sir.
CONAN: Hi. You're on the air. Go ahead, please.
ZACH: Hey. I was at MD Anderson the same time that Mr. Hitchens was there.
ZACH: I was actually there when he passed away. I was reading his memoir at the time.
ZACH: I had no idea that he was there. And my friend sent me an article from The New York Times saying that he was staying at MD Anderson. So I went, took my IV pole and all my medicines and went roaming around the esophageal ward, looking for him. And he had been - he had left the day after I found out...
ZACH: ...he was staying there. But...
BLUE: He was actually in the ICU because he had the pneumonia, so - but anyway, go on. I interrupted you.
ZACH: Oh, no, you're fine. I just wanted to say how much of an inspiration it was for him to speak on these things, a lack of faith, because I have never been a believer. And being from a particularly religious part of the country, I have people coming at me from all angles all the time...
ZACH: ...saying that they're praying for me, you know, and the best that I can do is say thank you.
ZACH: However, watching Hitch talk, listening to interviews, what a bright spot that was for me, in such a macabre time of my life...
ZACH: ...and not knowing, you know, what the next day was going to hold and seeing that - how he was just able to hold his head up high. I know that it was such a harrowing time for him, but it was such an inspiring way for me to go about being diagnosed with cancer after seeing him go through such a terrible thing.
BLUE: I'm sure he would have been really touched to hear that. It is true. He never once complained privately throughout this odyssey. He really stayed very much himself, but in a diminished and sometimes sad form. But he wrote, and he read, and he talked, and he was a father, and he was a husband and he was a friend, as he had been before - it was really quite extraordinary - all the way up till the very last day.
ZACH: Do you think he would have changed his habits - drinking and smoking - if he would have known the end result?
BLUE: Well, actually, I must say I have to put in a plug for my husband here. He's kind of hard on himself. He did smoke and drink for some time. However, first off, his father died of esophageal cancer, which is not that common a cancer. So clearly, it was - there was a heritable factor at work.
Two, he quit cold turkey in October of 2007 and didn't have another cigarette till sometime after the diagnosis. So for over two years, one day he decided to stop, and that was that. He very much wanted to live, and he had reformed his habits a couple years before - several years before he was diagnosed, so...
CONAN: Zach, thanks very much for the call. How are you doing, by the way?
ZACH: I've been in remission since January, and my last prognosis - I was down at MD Anderson last month, did a bone marrow biopsy and everything is all clear.
BLUE: Oh, that's so great.
CONAN: Great to hear. Thanks so much for the call.
ZACH: Thank you, sir.
CONAN: We're talking with Carol Blue, the widow of Christopher Hitchens, about his most recent - his last book, "Mortality." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And it's interesting. Another thing that surprised me was when Vanity Fair asked him to consider writing on his own mortality...
CONAN: ...he was resistant at first.
BLUE: Yeah, he wasn't that keen for several reasons. One, he, you know, kind of wanted to keep his private life private. And, two, he didn't - he had so many subjects he was interested in reading and writing about. He knew that he was living - going to be living through this experience. He didn't particularly want to have to be thinking and writing about it more than he had to. So - but he had made a pact with his wonderful editor, Graydon Carter, that he could write about anything, and God knows he did...
BLUE: ...except sports. So when they said we'd like you to do this, he could hardly say no.
CONAN: And the fact was, he was going to, whether he wanted to or not, learn an awful lot about cancer and medicine.
BLUE: Yeah. He became very interested because he - we had the good fortune of knowing the head of the National Institute of Health, Francis Collins, who, if I believed in God, I would say is doing God's work, but in fact he's doing the work of medical science. And they've mapped the genome, and they're now on the threshold of some very, very exciting targeted treatments. And he very much wanted to come on some of these radio and TV shows with me, but was prohibited from doing so because it might be construed as speaking for a commercial purpose - that is, you know, hawking Christopher's book.
But I just really want to put in a plug for the NIH and the funding that they need and how close they are to some really exciting developments. But Christopher did have his entire cancer genome mapped, every last little sequence, billions of them there are, I believe. He was the first to have it mapped for free for clinical purposes.
Others had done it before him at the Broad Institute and so on, like Steve Jobs, but they had paid for it. Christopher was the first to have it, as far as I know, I hope I'm right in saying this, to have it done for free at a medical institution in the hopes that there could be some immediate application to his case.
CONAN: Carol Blue, thank you so much for your time.
BLUE: Oh, thank you for having me.
CONAN: Carol Blue remembers her late husband in an afterword to his posthumously published book, "Mortality." She joined us today from Studio 3A in Washington. When we come back from a short break, the crisis in the South China Sea, what Senator Jim Webb calls a moment of truth for the United States and China. Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.