I’ve avoided reading most of the Hitchens obituaries, for they make me too sad. But some have stood out: the eulogy by his brother, a wonderful remembrance by his officemate at The Nation, and yesterday’s memorial in The New York Times by author Ian McEwan.
It’s all about books, ideas, and Hitchens’s fierce drive to keep producing up to the very end. Here’s the ending. McEwan is paying his last visit to Hitchens at the hospital in Houston:
The next morning, at Christopher’s request, Alexander and I set up a desk for him under a window. We helped him and his pole with its feed-lines across the room, arranged pillows on his chair, adjusted the height of his laptop. Talking and dozing were all very well, but Christopher had only a few days to produce 3,000 words on Ian Ker’s biography of Chesterton.
Whenever people talk of Christopher’s journalism, I will always think of this moment.
Consider the mix. Constant pain, weak as a kitten, morphine dragging him down, then the tangle of Reformation theology and politics, Chesterton’s romantic, imagined England suffused with the kind of Catholicism that mediated his brush with fascism and his taste for paradox, which Christopher wanted to debunk. At intervals, Christopher’s head would droop, his eyes close, then with superhuman effort he would drag himself awake to type another line. His long memory served him well, for he didn’t have the usual books on hand for this kind of thing. When it’s available, read the review. His unworldly fluency never deserted him, his commitment was passionate, and he never deserted his trade. He was the consummate writer, the brilliant friend. In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.
When people learn that their time is coming to an end, they often do the things they neglected in life: travel, visit friends—anything but what they did in their “normal” lives. That is, after all, what the “The Bucket List” was all about. Hitchens just kept on writing, for that was what he was born for, what he loved to do. He didn’t need to change his habits when death was nigh, because he had lived exactly the way he wanted.
We often hear that we should live as if each day was our last. That’s not possible, of course, because we’re humans, and we make plans. But we should surely live each day cognizant of—but not obsessed with—our mortality, and so few of us do. Hitchens did.
Do read McEwan’s piece.