Before he was diagnosed with terminal cancer, Christopher Hitchens used to cultivate the superior nonchalance concerning his own mortality which is part of the militant atheist mystique. But now that his mortality looms large and near, there are cracks in the granite façade:
So I get straight to the point and say what the odds are. The swiftest way of doing this is to note that the thing about Stage Four is that there is no such thing as Stage Five. Quite rightly, some people take me up on it. I recently had to accept that I wasn’t going to be able to attend my niece’s wedding, in my old hometown and former university in Oxford. This depressed me for more than one reason, and an especially close friend inquired, “Is it that you’re afraid you’ll never see England again?” As it happens he was exactly right to ask, and it had been precisely that which had been bothering me, but I was unreasonably shocked by his bluntness. I’ll do the facing of hard facts, thanks. Don’t you be doing it, too. And yet I had absolutely invited the question. Telling someone else, with deliberate realism, that once I’d had a few more scans and treatments I might be told by the doctors that things from now on could be mainly a matter of “management,” I again had the wind knocked out of me when she said, “Yes, I suppose a time comes when you have to consider letting go.” How true, and how crisp a summary of what I had just said myself.
(On a related note, John Loftus churns out blistering, blustery attacks on his former faith. Yet the sudden death of Ken Pulliam shook him to the core–in his own words.)
I’m not suggesting that a deathbed conversion is in the offing. Especially for the high profile atheist, losing face is a fate worse than hell. Mustn’t let the team down.
There’s another reason, beyond the dire prognosis, that Hitchens has lost some of his swagger. Back when he was able-bodied, it was easier to live in denial because he kept himself so busy. What with his reading and writing, interviews, speeches, debates, and far-flung travels–he was a perpetual-motion machine. That made it easy to keep the bark of death at bay.
But due to the effects of cancer, as well as the side-effects of cancer therapy, he is forced to contemplate his mortality every day and every hour.
I feel a natural bond with members of my own generation. The kids I grew up with. We came of age together at the same time and place.
But I also feel a certain bond with the generation before me. Sometimes I go back and watch an old TV show I saw as a kid in the 60s. One thing I’m instantly reminded of is the ubiquitous character actors who used to satellite in and out of so many different TV shows back then. “Ah, yes, I remember him (or her)!” I say to myself.
Yet, at the same time, I also know, as I watch these instantly recognizable actors, that most of them are long gone. And for members of the younger generation, they would be unrecognizable. So quickly forgotten. So missable.
People aren’t discrete, self-contained units. We come in packages. Packages of time and space.
If you don’t have God, you don’t have anything.