Book review – As I lay dying

2012-11-24 09:42

Mortality by Christopher Hitchens, Penguin, 240 pages, R180

Death is a downer, but dying is what we are all really afraid of – for ourselves and for those we love.

This year has been horrid – my father died, then a good friend and even my most beloved pet, which is perhaps why I even considered picking up Christopher Hitchens’ little book, Mortality.

Usually I would steer clear of such morbid topics, but I think perhaps the trouble is that we don’t talk about dying enough.

A truly great writer, Hitchens wrote about the journey of dying – the peaks of hope, the troughs of despair that are unavoidable for those facing death by disease – most especially cancer. I watched my friend consumed by this relentless foe.

It felt as though each time I visited, another tube had been added, another piece of her removed, another painful step on the inevitably agonising journey to oblivion had been taken. Yet almost to the end, we joked and talked about what she’d do when she got home.

But she was never going home – that was the terrible truth we never mentioned.

Hitchens’ wry observations – like the oxymoronic saying “what doesn’t kill us makes us stronger” – will make you laugh out loud.

As he points out, chemotherapy has never made anyone stronger, and many treatments, he says, leave one with “not the wish to die with dignity but the desire to have died”. He quotes the words of many great folk who have taken the journey to dying before – from John Betjeman to Wilfred Owen from whom he wished to steal the line “obscene as cancer”.

As a well-known atheist he talks about the arrogance of those who offer to pray for him – and of those who told him that his illness was a punishment for his godlessness.

Without the crutch of faith, Hitchens is forced to look dying in the eye, he can’t abdicate the experience to a higher power, and this takes courage, which he has plenty of.

He ponders too the difficulties of suddenly finding faith – were he to choose Catholicism, the Evangelical crowd would frown, similarly a late-in-the-day Islamic conversion would displease the Jews and the Christians and vice versa.

“I sympathise afresh with the mighty Voltaire, who, when badgered on his deathbed and urged to renounce the devil, murmured that this was no time to be making enemies.”

Despite its title, Mortality is a little book of musing and thoughts that has become part of the immortality of Hitchens.

Though physically gone from the world, he lives on in the written word. Fitting for someone who is among a select few who have talked about dying honestly instead of cloaking the terror of it in clichés and religious hocus pocus.

After all, nothing is as certain in life as death – so we should talk about it. 

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