I'd never been much of a fan of the brilliant and prolific, combative and witty ex-pat Brit. He just wasn't my thing. Not until he died and left
behind a stunning little book called Mortality. Plowing through the final pages of this slim yet potent book, I found myself teary-eyed and awed by the man's undeterred devotion to his craft--a reader, thinker, and writer to the last breath.
Though doomed by cancer, Hitchens strived to avoid "sentimentality and self-pity." As he grew sicker and weaker, he kept doing what he'd always done: sharing himself, his brash opinions and his sharp intellect, on the page. The result is a book that's, yes, sad, but surprisingly uplifting and hopeful. And funny. ("In Tumorville," says Hitchens."You may expire from sheer advice.")
Dying and death as narrative. It's as old as storytelling itself. Shakespeare thrived on it. Over the past year, we've seen some refreshing and quite beautiful examples of the end-of-life storyline--"last chapter" books, if you will. Such books manage to find humor, love, and absurdity in an otherwise gloomy place.
In his fantastic The End of Your Life Book Club (Amazon's top Best Book of the Month pick for October), Will Schwalbe shares the story of the two-person book club he created with his relentless and loveable mother when she was diagnosed with cancer. Alex Witchel's All Gone is the bittersweet account of the gradual loss of her mother to dementia, and Witchel's efforts to sustain their relationship by cooking the comfort-food meals of her childhood. Though we know where both stories are headed, we fiercely root for the apparently fated characters.
One reason such books, when done well, are so valuable is they help us confront the uncomfortable inevitability of our lives, and the lives of those we love. I also find it remarkable that Schwalbe and Witchel, by sharing their mothers' lives on the page, have kept them alive. Joan Didion achieved something similar in The Year of Magical Thinking, as does my former colleague Leslie Brody, who writes about the loss of her husband in the forthcoming The Last Kiss: A True Story of Love, Joy and Loss. Leslie and I worked at The
Bergen Record newspaper in the 1990s, and her husband, Eliot Pinsley, was
my editor. Her book is the heartbreaking story about making the most of their
final months together, as a couple and a family, as Eliot was dying of cancer.
Twenty years ago, I might've found such books depressing. Now, in my forties, I find them powerful and strangely inspiring. Most of us have experienced loss: my sister died many years ago, my mother five years ago, my father-in-law two years ago. And, sorry, but we all know that we're headed in the same direction. Everyone must face the unavoidable end of their own story, the dying of their light.
When I read about those who shined throughout the last chapters of their life--who confronted hardship with poise and vigor, who aged and died well and did "not go gentle into that good night" (Thomas again)--it gives me a
sense of hope, a belief that the pages keep turning and the story keeps changing
and a happy ending is indeed possible.
- Mortality, Christopher Hitchens
- The End of Your Life Book Club, Will Schwalbe
- All Gone: A memoir of My Mother's Dementia, With Refreshments, Alex Witchel
- The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion
- The Last Kiss: A True Story of
Love, Joy and Loss, Leslie Brody
More Last Chapter Books:
- The Fault in Our Stars, John Green
- How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter, Sherwin Nuland
- Everyman, Philip
- Tuesdays With Morrie, Mitch Albom
- The Last Lecture, Randy Pausch