Book Review – “Mortality” by Christopher Hitchens, And Talking To Kids About Death
According to my mother, when I was five or six, I had a startling realization that at least two people died so far – Vladimir Lenin (I knew that from kindergarten), and our next door neighbour. Typically, children under five do not understand death as a thing that is universal and forever. Somewhere, between the ages of five and ten, a deeper understanding of death emerges, but often, death is still something that is only applied to “old people”. Probably, anyone over seventeen. ????
Notably, kids do not display the adult awkwardness around death until they get older, so it is not uncommon for a child to ask her grandma when she plans to die. Now, that’s the part where we usually get all weird, and chide the child for saying such things.
Fast forward thirty or forty years or so – our parents or grandparents, now facing their own mortality, may start dropping some death related remarks. Perhaps, they want you to know what kind of funeral they would like, or whether or not they would like to be buried in the family lot, or cremated, and have their ashes spread from a helicopter above the Canadian Rockies (hmmm… there is an idea).
Their children – now adults, and fully aware of the finality and irreversibility of death, and also fully committed to utter denial of death as a possibility until the very last possible moment – wave these remarks away. “Come on, mom! Stop with the death talk, ah?”, or “Don’t even talk about things like that!”. Some manage to face the “death talk” – with all the discomfort of talking about “birds and bees”.
Sex, and death – both have been around as long as we have, and we are still all weird about it. ????
Consider the way we usually talk to children (and each other) about nutrition instead. I work with many parents – some are coaches, themselves – and there is hardly ever a “nutrition talk”. We don’t sit down ONCE, and get this awkward topic of vegetables and nutrients and cooking out of the way. Instead, everyday life is used as an ongoing opportunity to talk about everyday life things.
“Look at that green salad on your plate! Do you remember the farmer we bought it from?”.
“Awesome job, eating up those tomatoes – see how they are bright red? Colourful fruit and veggies are good for us!”.
“Let’s make cookies tonight – want to help me with the batter?”’
Imagine if we could talk about sex and death the same way. Hitchens manages to do that – talk about “living dyingly” in his usual confrontational, yet insightful style. Yet if you pay attention, you hear the softness – the reminiscing of the family times, and conversations with friends. This is hardly a swan song – instead, it is a continued conversation that happens to be inconveniently interrupted by death itself.
One thing you can hope for for a person who can write, and write well, is that they keep on writing through all the life experiences. The most mundane becomes enlightening when described by a skillful writer.
“Mortality” is the best account of cancer experience I have ever read – Hitch is unapologetic, and descriptive, yet he manages to never descend into cancer victimhood.
A friend recently asked me if I would have an open casket funeral. [What can I say I have some strange-to-most conversations with friends].
Nah, I shrugged. “I am donor. I doubt there would be much left for an open casket. Besides, I think I’d rather cremation. Hot fire vs. Cold earth? Easy choice there.”
Italian (bless him) is pretty used to random sex and death tangents in everyday conversation.
“You know I am a donor, right?” While making dinner.
“What do you think of green burials? Would you want one?” While driving to a friend’s birthday.
We attended a “celebration of life” event few years ago for his friend’s father. He was a… strange bird. He was very involved in the community dancing, so at some point, dance music came on, and thirty or forty people, ranging in age from sixty to eighty broke out in a dance. It was magnificent.
I want a party too, damn it.
I want music.
And I want people to laugh at my funeral. I think we are way too serious at these events.
And none of that “she was a saint and a perfect person” talk either. I want my friends to talk about my weaknesses too. Those are often the funniest, most endearing attributes in a person.
Pushing assumptions, asking weird-ass questions, playing devil’s advocate and generally being a pain in everyone’s behind?
Hitchens did a great job doing just that.
I wish we got to find out what else he had to say if he lived to be seventy or eighty.
“I have decided to take whatever my disease can throw at me, and to stay combative even while taking the measure of my inevitable decline.”
“In whatever kind of a “race” life may be, I have very abruptly become a finalist.”
“It’s no fun to appreciate to the full the truth of the materialist proposition that I don’t have a body, I am a body.”
“To the dumb question “Why me?” the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: Why not?”
“Nose-hairs gone: runny nostrils. Constipation and diarrhea alternating”
“For me, to remember friendship is to recall those conversations that it seemed a sin to break off: the ones that made the sacrifice of the following day a trivial one.”