That is a small word but it seems to loom awfully large when you see it at the top of a blank page. I suppose it depends to some extent on the circumstances and I will get to mine in a moment, but a few thoughts first.
I’ve thought about mortality on and off for quite some time as I am sure most people have. In particular – and it is funny how life throws intersections at you sometimes, rather than curves – I was thinking about it a couple of weeks ago, over at my sister Ruth’s place, when I glanced at the corner of the antique oak desk she keeps in her lounge. That’s where she stacks her latest books, either about to read or just finished and I am always interested in what’s there. Sometimes I’ll ask to borrow one, as I did that day.
‘Oh’ I said, ‘I have been meaning to read that, have you finished it? Can I borrow it?’
Yes, she had read it and yes I could borrow it. The book, of course, was Christopher Hitchens’ last book – ‘Mortality’ and for those who may not be familiar with it, or with Hitchens, when I say it was his last book I mean precisely that. He started on it after he was diagnosed with an advanced esophageal cancer and he finished it, well he finished it when he finished, 18 months later, in December 2011. Along the way he continued to write brilliantly on politics and culture, and in a series of Vanity Fair articles he described what it was like to be deported “…from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.” These articles have been collected and published as ‘Mortality‘
It’s clear when you read it, which doesn’t take long as it is a very short book, that he didn’t really get a chance to polish it up much – the last bits are kind of confused and disordered, a bit like I guess the last part of his life was. In fact a bit like most people’s endings, confused and disordered without enough time and too short by half.
Most of the rest of Hitchens’ work is anything but untidy and disordered. His masterly demolition of organised religion, “God is not Great“, so angered the self-proclaimed devout of many disparate creeds that it united many who normally abhor each other in a joint symphonic blast of religious hatred at this remarkable man.
When the news he was dying got out, there were many ‘It’s God’s revenge’ messages and website postings gloating at the hellfire he would soon be eternally roasting in. He metaphorically shook his head at these, in what seems, when you read it, to be sardonic amusement and proceeded to gently deconstruct what these sentiments said about the believers who set them out. It is an illuminating and remarkable book, like the man, and at the risk of repeating myself, like his life, too short.
Like many lives, in fact, in particular my youngest sister Miriam’s. I write this by her bedside in the palliative care ward of St. Mary’s of the Lake Hospital in Kingston. My other sister Ruth is on the other side of the bed, where she has spent most of the last 60 hours or so while we wait for Miriam, our baby sister, to take that final boatride across the River Styx.
Miriam had an advantage over Hitchens when she was taken into the ‘land of malady‘, barely 6 weeks ago, in that she had sojourned there before, when she was first diagnosed with ovarian cancer in late 2009. That time she was allowed to leave, to return to the land of more or less health. Her hair grew back, came in thicker, darker more luxurious, she got back onto the golf course – many courses in fact. I guess if she learned anything she learned that there is no point wanting or waiting to do something until it’s too late. So when she had her reprieve (and it is all only a reprieve for all of us) she’s gone and ‘just done it‘. She’s played Pebble Beach and Spyglass Hill, the Links at Spanish Bay, the Blue Monster at Doral (on her fiftieth Birthday – before the first scare), Carnoustie, Glen Eagles (shot 86!) and the Old Course at St. Andrews (in a howling gale with horizontal rain, just her and the caddy as the rest of her group piked at the weather).
That’s what she was like, determined, solid, difficult to steer off course once her mind was made up. Maybe that’s why she’s hanging on now, too determined to listen to us telling her it’s time to let go and leave. We think maybe she hears us sometimes, through the drugs that are keeping her passing peaceful and mostly painless. Her eyelids fluttered a bit when we got our brother Dan on Skype to her this morning from California. He had planned to come up for a visit when he heard the dire news before Christmas but he left it too late. Not his fault, none of us expected her t0 go downhill so quickly. The roadmaps for this journey are not very good.
Unlike Hitchens, she knew what to expect when it came back to her in early December and she tried to deal with it with characteristic forthrightness and fortitude.
Farewell and bon voyage Miriam, I’ll think about you whenever I try to decide whether or not to ‘just do it’.
And thanks to Stephen in Sydney for sending me this:
“Do not stand at my grave and weep I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain.
When you awaken in the morning’s hush I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night.
Do not stand at my grave and cry; I am not there. I did not die.”