How does a person confront death when they believe nothing comes next? One who believes as such can suppose how they might feel. However, routinely we expect to feel one way about the future, and then when we get there we feel entirely differently. Perhaps imagining your own impending doom is as impossible it is to imagine the cessation of your existence.
Christopher Hitchens' Mortality presents the reader with a firsthand account of the otherwise opaque lens into the life of a dying atheist. Given his passion for denouncing faith, and for a life that must end once and for all, this would seem to be the draw of the short book. Whether he stands steady in the face of it or not, convictions about an unconquerable atheist as a man conquered by death would leave the confirmed resolute that all atheists or theists have secretly been theists or atheists all along (though surely in either case the denial of their convictions would be no great test of their resolve).
The frame is an unavoidable pitch. However, that read of the book, while undeniably touching on the inevitable factors of Hitchens' unbelief present in the book, would deny it its larger significance. In fact, as you'd expect one to do with with questions one has long since dispensed with while facing bigger problems, Hitchens does not make the focus of his book a renewal of his position of his well documented antagonism against religion. The question of how an atheist faces death is answered by the book with its true implied premise: How does anyone?
Hitchens, of course, can only answer for his own part. He is limited to the particular demise of esophageal cancer, brought on at least in part by a life of heavy smoking and drinking, as a man in his early sixties, and as a public figure wealthy in resources as in friends and enemies, known and unknown. In ways, the book reflects death as only a conspicuous and symbolic atheist would see it. He writes of emails throughout the book from fans and detractors, and talks of prayer groups and events in his name, through to spiteful comments claiming his cancer is God's punishment. He notes being underwhelmed by a god who's great act of divine, righteous intervention is to give cancer to a man at a high risk of cancer.
But while Hitchens' account is uniquely Hitchenian, his style and focus illuminates the mundanity and ubiquity of death we choose to forget. He can paint hope as a bastard, care as torture, concern and empathy as a knife, all in the same language and images as we find in the course of ordinary day. Hitchens lifts the veil between us and the terminal and reveals the contiguity of our "just a little pinch" of blood work to the heroin addict runs of syringe scars marking the digs and whirls in search of a vein, of our drippy throat to the hopeless refusal to bring down fire into your chest with every swallow. The skin deep image of a tired-seeming, bald Hitchens, is made translucent by his own language, the light of which reveals an agony inside the man who has to fight for every move against the dominion of the "alien" of cancer.
Of course, Hitchens—the writer, the thinker, the lover of life—does not solely wish to reify the physical struggles of cancer in us. The dominion he fought was also one of mind. He speaks of the crystalizing moment in which he discovered his authorial voice, and reflects that all of that could be gone—his physical voice, his written voice, and his mind. He immodestly cherishes his ability to recite poetry, or a master a conversation or debate, to craft a story. All of that, he feels, could be taken away. Hitchens' death in particular is one which his life is being taken away in front of him.
Hitchens gives us his assurance early in the book that he wishes not to be sentimental. I would like to further that assurance. As challenging as this book can be to stomach, Hitchens' pointedly denies self-pity and cloying, and gives an assessment of his predicament that can be described as frank. In lieu of the sustained neglect of psychological immunity and derealization of one's own drama, Hitchens reaffirms the experience of most other people whose lives find a new stability in disrepair: it becomes your new normal. Hitchens repudiates his acceptance of Nietzsche's "That which doesn't kill you only makes you stronger". He is made worse for the experience. But throughout, you will find a perversion of his reality by the "alien" which has made it a part of is life as his body. This perversion reflects the commonality of our habituation to all despairing and blissful experiences.
Reading was once described to me as a means of acquiring "surrogate experience". May you never truly experience the bodily or psychological ravaging of a terminal illness in your life, or in the lives of those you care about. But the acquisition of all experience gives us profound psychological and moral fortitude. What I believe the "surrogate experience" of a man facing his death gives us is the intimate awareness of death in the palette of our spirits. If you saw a cheery film that ended in despair out of nowhere, it would feel alien. Death is not alien. I believe accounts like Hitchens' prepare us for our own mortality, and perhaps more importantly the mortality of those around us, and give us conceptual language about death when it finds its way into our lives—and it will.
The book is unfinished. It's only roughly one hundred pages. It lacks a conclusive end. It's perhaps this quality, and the knowing dissatisfaction it leaves you with, that gives you the best sense that life is itself left unfinished for the great many of us.