I once had this fantasy that I would read a dying man poetry by his bedside. There would be low lights and rain trickling past the windowsill and it’s only now I realize how much I had glamorized a hospital scene. Death is not romantic so I thought I’d make it so. Poetry seemed, to me, the only way to get close to someone leaving, the consummate end to a doomed relation. It’s only now I realize our relations go on even after someone is gone. We all live with ghosts. The wilting flowers in the wooden box, mosaic hearts like shards of glass, the apparitions that haunt the doors at night.
I would’ve liked to have read poetry with Christopher Hitchens. But since I never knew him, well, at least not in the conventional sense (we all feel we know the writers we read) I’m grateful Ian McEwan was there, bedside, with Hitchens, piloting him through poetry into the world from which there’s no return. Least not according to Hitchens.
McEwan writes in The Globe and Mail:
In the afternoon I was helping him out of bed, the idea being that he was to take a shuffle round the nurses’ station to exercise his legs. As he leaned his trembling, diminished weight on me, I said, only because I knew he was thinking it, “Take my arm old toad …” He gave me that shifty sideways grin I remembered so well from healthy days. It was the smile of recognition, or one that anticipates in late afternoon an “evening of shame” – that is to say, pleasure, or, one of his favourite terms, “sodality.”
That must be how I came to be reading The Whitsun Weddings aloud to him two hours later…
I set the poem up and read it, and when I reached that celebrated end, “A sense of falling, like an arrow-shower/Sent out of sight, somewhere becoming rain,’ Christopher murmured from his bed, “That’s so dark, so horribly dark.” I disagreed, and not out of any wish to lighten his mood. Surely, the train journey comes to an end, the recently married couples are dispatched toward their separate fates. He wouldn’t have it, and a week later, when I was back in London, we were still exchanging e-mails on the subject. One of his began, “Dearest Ian, Well, indeed – no rain, no gain – but it still depends on how much anthropomorphizing Larkin is doing with his unconscious … I’d provisionally surmise that “somewhere becoming rain” is unpromising.’
And this was a man in constant pain. Denied drinking or eating, he sucked on tiny ice chips. Where others might have beguiled themselves with thoughts of divine purpose (why me?) and dreams of an afterlife, Christopher had all of literature. Over the three days of my final visit I took a note of his subjects. Not long after he stole my Ackroyd, he was talking to me of a Slovakian novelist; whether Dreiser in his novels about finance was a guide to the current crisis; Chesterton’s Catholicism; Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese, which I had brought for him on a previous visit; Thomas Mann’s The Magic Mountain – he’d reread it for reflections on German imperial ambitions toward Turkey; and because we had started to talk about old times in Manhattan, he wanted to quote and celebrate James Fenton’s A German Requiem: “How comforting it is, once or twice a year,/To get together and forget the old times.”
In Walter Pater’s famous phrase, he burned “with this hard gem-like flame.” Right to the end.