Among my more inexplicable decisions of late, I decided to bring Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality along on a six-hour plane ride yesterday. If you haven’t read it, it’s a series of essays he published after his diagnosis with esophageal cancer. I’d read the first, “The Topic of Cancer,” in Vanity Fair when it was first published. Its raw honesty and elegant language absolutely enthralled me and I decided to buy the whole book.
If you’re not a fan (or foe) of Hitchens, suffice it to say that he was one of the most brilliant writing minds in recent memory, although I suppose I’ve given it away by referring to him in the past tense. Yes, spoiler alert, he died. But in the process he looked unflinchingly at living in a way that few of us do.
I am not what you would call a fearful flier. Okay, to be honest, I don’t like take-offs. They sound so urgent and angry, the sudden whirring of engines, the sheer improbability of flight at its most apparent. I’m not much of a fan of landings either. I have what I’ve been told are epically large sinuses which often make descent and decompression make me wish for an ice pick to the forehead as relief. But, besides these two times, it’s not like I’m afraid to fly. I can settle in and enjoy the excuse to unplug and read or, even better, write. Love you, laptop. Still, I’d say that reading about the inevitability of death while my life is in the hands of some pilot I don’t know and who sounds absolutely unintelligible over the loudspeaker was not my brightest move. I am awash with wondering and railing against both mortality and Mortality.
I got through the book in the first two hours, leaving me two thirds of the flight to ponder its message. If I had to summarize it, I’d say this: everything we tell ourselves in an attempt to self-soothe is a lie. The very idea that prayer can intercede on our behalf is childish at best and egotistical at worst. And… intercede how? By delaying the death that is some day coming to all of us? All the phrases we rely on – “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” “you’re putting up such a brave fight” – Hitchens handily dismantles them all, leaving us nothing but a view into the maw of death.
I’ve always had a grand capacity for magical thinking. I am usually at peace about death because I’m not 100% convinced it’s coming to me. I’ve pulled off so many last-minute saves, so many improbable comebacks in this life. There is a big part of me that thinks that when the curtain is drawing I’ll be able to leap out from behind it and say, “Just kidding!” and somehow stick around.
Christopher Hitchens, though… right now he is thwarting me. And not even praying for a safe landing will make me feel better.
Still, read Mortality. It is genius.