What doesn’t kill you will eventually get you anyway

UPDATE 16/12/2011: Christopher Hitchens died a few hours after I wrote the following. I regret choosing the title which now seems inappropriately prescient, but have left it unchanged.

Vanity Fair announcement here. NYT obit here.

UPDATE 17/12/2011: Ian McEwan has a must-read piece on his recent time with Hitchens at the Houston hospital where Hitchens spent his last days.

Christopher Hitchens was diagnosed with cancer a year and a half ago, and has written a few articles contemplating his mortality, but this is his most harrowing yet. And yet he manages his usual erudition, wit and turn of phrase.

Ostensibly the essay is a rebuttal of Nietzsche’s “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”. He contrasts the proton therapy that he has received:

This put me in a rare class of patients who could claim to have received the highly advanced expertise uniquely available at the stellar Zip Code of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. To say that the rash hurt would be pointless. The struggle is to convey the way that it hurt on the inside. I lay for days on end, trying in vain to postpone the moment when I would have to swallow. Every time I did swallow, a hellish tide of pain would flow up my throat, culminating in what felt like a mule kick in the small of my back. I wondered if things looked as red and inflamed within as they did without. And then I had an unprompted rogue thought: If I had been told about all this in advance, would I have opted for the treatment? There were several moments as I bucked and writhed and gasped and cursed when I seriously doubted it.

It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory. It’s also impossible to warn against. If my proton doctors had tried to tell me up front, they might perhaps have spoken of “grave discomfort” or perhaps of a burning sensation. I only know that nothing at all could have readied or steadied me for this thing that seemed to scorn painkillers and to attack me in my core. I now seem to have run out of radiation options in those spots (35 straight days being considered as much as anyone can take), and while this isn’t in any way good news, it spares me from having to wonder if I would willingly endure the same course of treatment again.

But mercifully, too, I now can’t summon the memory of how I felt during those lacerating days and nights. And I’ve since had some intervals of relative robustness. So as a rational actor, taking the radiation together with the reaction and the recovery, I have to agree that if I had declined the first stage, thus avoiding the second and the third, I would already be dead. And this has no appeal.

Whatever doesn’t kill you keeps you alive. I’m grateful that the Hitch is still alive, and still writing almost as actively as he ever has.

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  1. sacredfig

     /  December 16, 2011

    RIP Chris Hitchens. I do agree that the last Vanity Fair essay had something about it that approaches the sublime. Another wonderful line:

    “But, as with the normal life, one finds that every passing day represents more and more relentlessly subtracted from less and less.”

  2. Was just coming in with the update. RIP HItch.


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