Somewhere between an off-colour joke about Cherie Blair and our second drink of Johnny Walker, Christopher Hitchens made me promise him something.
He was dying and was about to have a cigarette – several in fact – but I couldn’t tell anybody that until after he was gone.
“You must promise not to tell anyone. It would be a condition that you wouldn’t mention it,” he said sternly.
We sat on a couple of dusty folding chairs in a dark apartment adjacent to his own that was under renovation at the time to create a larger living space for him and his family.
His seventeen-year-old daughter, Antonia, had just ordered pizza. His wife was away. He sat with me in the unfinished apartment, by an open window, drinking and smoking in secret.
Cigarettes, he explained, fought off the nausea he endured from chemotherapy. By that time, in October 2010, he was fighting stage four cancer of the esophagus.
“It’s a very profound addiction,” Mr. Hitchens said. “I couldn’t change, even if I wanted to,” he said. His illness created such a profound paradox for him.
The smoking and drinking that were so intertwined with his intellectual life conspired against him. He was now staring death in the face.
At the time, he knew “the numbers are not good.” Yet, he found it easier to contemplate death than renouncing scotch or cigarettes. Burning the candle at both ends prolonged “the lovely light” that defined so much of his creative life.
“It’s the only life for a gentleman. The difficulty is, you never know when it will finish you,” he said.
Mr. Hitchens and I spent a couple of hours together, talking about everything from the war in Iraq to his “omnipotent” wives.
The only time he ever cried was when we spoke about his children. He was “thoroughly” sick of talking about his illness, but he could talk about his children forever.
“Especially with Antonia. This was supposed to be her big year. I cracked up almost exactly on the day when I was going to take her on her first college trip. I felt very ashamed, depressed and miserable,” he said.
Clearly, he cherished them, yet he so rarely wrote about them.
He was the kind of father who took his son Alexander, also a journalist, to Iraq. The kind that pulled himself together to take Antonia to all of her college tours. It was something his own parents, who had never been to university, were not able to do for him.
As much as he loved them, he could not change who he was, even if that would have meant cutting his time with them short.
“My life is my writing before it’s anything. Because that’s who I am and my children come later and that’s what they’ve had to put up with,” he said. Just then, Antonia knocked on the door. The pizza had arrived. He crushed his half finished cigarette on a plate and left to have dinner with his daughter.
“This is the life I’ve led for a long time. I can’t imagine what it would have been like otherwise.”
David Frum on Christopher Hitchens: A man of moral clarity
Christopher Hitchens, 1949-2011: David Frum remembers the author | Full Comment | National Post
British-born journalist and atheist intellectual Christopher Hitchens, who made the United States his home and backed the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq, died on Thursday at the age of 62.
Hitchens died in Houston of pneumonia, a complication of cancer of the esophagus, Vanity Fair magazine said.
“Christopher Hitchens – the incomparable critic, masterful rhetorician, fiery wit, and fearless bon vivant – died today at the age of 62,” Vanity Fair said.
The Post’s David Frum remembers ‘a man of moral clarity.’
A friend of theirs once took Christopher Hitchens and his wife Carol Blue to dinner at Palm Beach’s Everglades Club, notorious for its exclusion of Jews.
“You will behave, won’t you?” Carol anxiously asked Christopher on the way into the club. No dice. When the headwaiter approached, Christopher demanded: “Do you have a kosher menu?”
Christopher was never a man to back away from a confrontation on behalf of what he considered basic decency. Yet it would be wrong to remember only the confrontational side. Christopher was also a man of exquisite sensitivity and courtesy, dispensed without regard to age or station.
On one of the last occasions I saw him, my wife and I came to drop some food–lamb tagine – to sustain a family with more on its mind than cooking. Christopher, though weary and sick, insisted on painfully lifting himself from his chair to perform the rites of hospitality. He might have cancer, but we were still guests – and as guests, we must have champagne.
I once had the honor of sharing a debating platform with Christopher, on the same side thank God. It was like going into battle alongside the U.S. Marine Corps. The audience was overwhelmingly hostile. The longer Christopher talked, the more subdued they became.
As the event broke up, a crowd of questioners formed around him. I created a diversion thinking it would help him escape for some needed rest. But Christopher declined the offer. He stood with them, as tired as I was, but ready to adjourn to a nearby bar and converse with total strangers till the bars closed.
Peter J. Thompson/National Post
Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Christopher Hitchens pose for photographers prior to a debate on religion in Toronto 2010
Hitchens was not one of those romantics who fetishized “dialogue.” Far from suffering fools gladly, he delighted in making fools suffer. When he heard that another friend, a professor, had a habit of seducing female students in his writing seminars, he shook his head pityingly. “It’s not worth it. Afterward, you have to read their short stories.”
He delighted in writing himself, of course, and in all that surrounded writing. I had the dazzling experience one night of listening to Christopher and Salman Rushdie replay a favorite game, wrecking book titles by changing a single word.
I wish I could remember them all, not only because they were so funny, but because I still wince at the scolding Christopher gave me when he overheard me relating the anecdote from memory and mangling his alternative to “The Great Gatsby” as “The Good Gatsby” rather than “The Big Gatsby.”
He especially liked gallows humor. When the nurses asked him, in that insinuatingly cheerful way they have, how he was feeling, he’d answer, “I seem to have a little touch of cancer.” If he was late to emerge from his living room to see you because of the exhaustion and nausea of chemotherapy, he’d excuse himself with, “I’m sorry to keep you waiting. I was brushing my hair”– of which of course there were only a few wisps left.
I never expected to become friends with him