In December of 2011, Christopher Hitchens died at MD Anderson, a hospital renowned for its cutting-edge oncology treatments. When I first heard the news, I was utterly devastated. I loved to hear him speak and debate, as the often provocative words seemed to flow from some boundless stream of wit and wash over us with the soothing timbre of his voice. His voice was a deceptively smooth whiskey for the ear: you could get drunk off his words even though they sometimes stung. What an amazing voice lost. Before succumbing to esophageal cancer, he did take Nietzsche, and himself, to task for ever saying such a banal thing as ""WAS MICH NICHT UMBRINGT MACHT MICH STÄRKER." These words, like all others, were proclaimed by people weakened unto death.
There are, in fact, many things that do not destroy you and do not make you stronger. Suffering deserves its own special place of consideration.
Long have I put off writing about my own experience with suffering and illness. Perhaps too long. Reading Hitchens words* (in Trial of the Will) reminds me of what I know deep down. The agony of pain will make you relent in the end. Whatever bravado you show in the light of a healthy day will soon be lost, forfeited to the the silent specter of intractable suffering.
Down it goes
along with the pride of life.
Down it goes into the soul,
past the soul towards something deeper still.
Suffering takes you so far down
that "the you" you were before it,
though you may return by degrees to "that" former state,
will never see "that" full light of life again.
Life is about simple math with infinite outcomes. It’s a game of subtraction, really. An infinite regress. Entropy takes over. The cumulative effects of living are also the overtures of impending death.
I am desperately clinging to the cliff's edge of this thing called my life's work. The past few weeks have been frequented by so little sleep that it could scarcely keep other people functioning, I think. During my days spent circling the gallows, like a scrawny vulture, I developed this gaunt look from the radical insomnia. Ah, yes. Bordering, it seems in retrospect, on the brink—teetering and tottering along that thin line of sanity and despair. Existing in that state is a tightrope endeavor to say the least. Even if you're great at tightrope walking, it is still beyond difficult. This is the kind of existence that makes even the Wallendas fall.
In life there is no such thing as a net, let alone a safe one. There is no safety at all. The gun is loaded, always loaded and always ready to fire. So, as the sleeplessness that has accompanied my research reminds me, none of us are so far away from that place, at any moment, as we think.
I remember I was sitting quietly at my desk, trying to gather my thoughts for a series of statistical analyses and received a text from my brother. I normally would not even check my phone, but I was feeling frisky—what the heck…why not? The text bluntly stated, "Hitchens died today." He was gone in a matter of QWERTY seconds. It struck me as a foul blow. I had just been watching an interview with him earlier that week. Admittedly, my thoughts on life, faith and the merits of religion differ vastly from his. But, I found some ground that he and I share. As his life waxed away, as his body was wasting away, his mind remained as sharp as a prison shank. He was always en garde, ready to end a weakly composed thought with the sniper-like precision of his rhetoric. I suppose his mind was more like smooth glass than the shank analogy might allow for, but just as deadly and purposeful. He had a sort of easy style, or at least he made it look easy; and, again, his voice sounded like someone perpetually tuned an antiquated radio to a British broadcast of chocolate—the melodious vocal performativity. He was difficult not to like. He did say a great many things that, had his suffering continued to outpace his prognosis, he might well have needed to embark on revisions of another sort. It is one thing to speculate on what one might do or think or how one might rail against the gods while that moment is far enough away. Quite another to speak so contemptuously when death has his hand intertwined with your own.
People joke with me about my scratches with near-death, but I take none of it lightly. They certainly have not left me stronger. The reality is by recovering from any illness or disease—even if it is just a respite—inevitably means the Ferris wheel will come round again. The ride will not stop until we do.
I now wonder if one of Hitchens' questions will stop? In his debates on religion, he used to pose a question to anyone under the sound of his voice, something like this: "What is that good thing that religion could/would occasion you to do that my atheism cannot?" I often wish I could have spoken with him on this point, not because I think I have all of life’s answers; but I think I would have drawn upon my own suffering to and said something of this sort: "Mr. Hitchens, suffering as you are from this cruel form of cancer—and it is cruel by all accounts and truly beneath the dignity of any rational creature—I notice that you have rightly chosen the best care that money could afford. Now, it would be a kind gesture also to find someone in similar straights and help them out. Certainly, altruism and philanthropy lead people to do such things every day.
But further, if it were possible to look upon the sufferings of a loved one and say: "no…no my dearly beloved you shall not die of cancer! I will subtract your cancer from you and add it to my own account" (remember this life is all about math). Even then, to suffer for someone we love is still within reach of a great soul. But, to say, "no I will go and find the vilest creature and exchange my life for his—take his cancer and allow him to walk away with a clean bill; turn my estate over to him; change his name to Hitchens, all the while knowing that he will use your beneficence for the worst ills imaginable. He will spurn your goodness and spoil the good name you had earned. Worst still, anyone who ever evaluated the life-work of Christopher Hitchens would be forced to consider your work through the lens of this man who now shares your name, who has become you. In your giving, you gave him the right to become you to others, and allowed his unthinking words to replace your own. To this man who would intentionally do you a great deal of harm, would even take joy in your suffering, to this man…I sincerely ask would you give yourself and all that is yours? I dare say not. Quite reasonable not to. That is the thing, I think, that the Gospels say was done for us though. As illogical and non-rational as that may sound, it does not change the reality of what I believe to be true. This is the essence of sacrifice, of self-for-others. $acrifice never makes cent$.
Jamie and I were not too long ago there at MD Anderson, probably very near to the room where Hitchens died. The man we were visiting was a close friend of her family; he had received a grim prognosis—cancer yet again. This time the odds of him winning were little more than what is tritely called a hope and a prayer. Yet, Jamie had this unction, something outside of herself calling to her from beyond, to go to Houston and pray for him. With our masks on and hands sanitized, we were able to walk into his room to pray for him, though he was not supposed to have human contact. The doctors were going to try, in their words, to “flat-line him” with chemo. They were going to take him to the brink of death and revive him with a flood of stem cells. On the best of days, even with youth on your side and cancer not against you (both of which were not the case), this was a Hail Mary.
After the treatment, that man was not only alive, but well. It is a miracle. You say of science and technology and I grant you that. But, what you cannot ever take away from that man, from his wife, the nurses and staff at MD Anderson, and us is the fact that not only did he not have a negative reaction to the chemo (this particular cocktail is so toxic that extreme exhaustion and vomiting are not side-effects but effect-effects), he responded positively. Important to note: there is nothing about these toxins that should ever make you feel better, though it might lead you to get better in the end. My point is that poison is poison, even if it cures. It wasn’t b-vitamins they were juicing him with. It was the most powerful, synergistic and ridiculously expensive drug combination and experimentation that they have. While the plan was obviously for him to improve over time, it was never for him to feel better in the moment. I hope that makes sense. Alcohol poured on a nasty cut is not meant to make your cut "feel" better but to help it heal. Truth is it burns. It also works.
We dropped everything and did as Jamie felt God was urging her to do. We prayed for this gentleman and his family and the skilled medical team working with him. On our way back from Houston, not days later but hours later, the gentleman's wife called to inform us that instead of getting sick from the largest dose of allowable chemo, he continued to improve and asked for Chinese take-out. Who among us has not had gastronomic regrets over Chinese take-out, sans chemo? I warrant a great many. His wife took it as not a little miracle that he actually had an appetite and that he wanted something ethnic in the face of what was promised to him as “flat-lining.” And lest you attribute it to the awe of stem cells, they were not administered until later. That he continues on a positive trajectory is no small feat either. I will leave it to the grand debaters to discuss Hume and whether or not the miraculous occurs. My only argument is an obvious one, at least to me: if God is anywhere, he's certainly in the gaps.
For my part, I am torn between the several varieties of the Transcendent in action. That Jamie was so compelled and I so wiling. I'm not usually one to oblige. That he was welcoming of prayer in such a position as would be easy to disdain anything that reeks of supposed grace; that he got better and not worse…I count them to God’s credit.
* original source: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2012/01/hitchens-201201
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Kyle McNease - Academic and founder and CEO of Prognosis Hope.