Somewhere between an off-colour joke about Cherie Blair and our second drink of Johnny Walker, Christopher Hitchens made me promise him something.
He was dying and was about to have a cigarette – several in fact – but I couldn’t tell anybody that until after he was gone.
“You must promise not to tell anyone. It would be a condition that you wouldn’t mention it,” he said sternly.
We sat on a couple of dusty folding chairs in a dark apartment adjacent to his own that was under renovation at the time to create a larger living space for him and his family.
His seventeen-year-old daughter, Antonia, had just ordered pizza. His wife was away. He sat with me in the unfinished apartment, by an open window, drinking and smoking in secret.
Cigarettes, he explained, fought off the nausea he endured from chemotherapy. By that time, in October 2010, he was fighting stage four cancer of the esophagus.
“It’s a very profound addiction,” Mr. Hitchens said. “I couldn’t change, even if I wanted to,” he said. His illness created such a profound paradox for him.
The smoking and drinking that were so intertwined with his intellectual life conspired against him. He was now staring death in the face.
At the time, he knew “the numbers are not good.” Yet, he found it easier to contemplate death than renouncing scotch or cigarettes. Burning the candle at both ends prolonged “the lovely light” that defined so much of his creative life.
“It’s the only life for a gentleman. The difficulty is, you never know when it will finish you,” he said.
Mr. Hitchens and I spent a couple of hours together, talking about everything from the war in Iraq to his “omnipotent” wives.
The only time he ever cried was when we spoke about his children. He was “thoroughly” sick of talking about his illness, but he could talk about his children forever.
“Especially with Antonia. This was supposed to be her big year. I cracked up almost exactly on the day when I was going to take her on her first college trip. I felt very ashamed, depressed and miserable,” he said.
Clearly, he cherished them, yet he so rarely wrote about them.
He was the kind of father who took his son Alexander, also a journalist, to Iraq. The kind that pulled himself together to take Antonia to all of her college tours. It was something his own parents, who had never been to university, were not able to do for him.
As much as he loved them, he could not change who he was, even if that would have meant cutting his time with them short.
“My life is my writing before it’s anything. Because that’s who I am and my children come later and that’s what they’ve had to put up with,” he said. Just then, Antonia knocked on the door. The pizza had arrived. He crushed his half finished cigarette on a plate and left to have dinner with his daughter.
“This is the life I’ve led for a long time. I can’t imagine what it would have been like otherwise.”