In remembrance of my friend Hitch

SHANNON STAPLETON REUTERS Author Christopher Hitchens poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York in this June 7, … Continued

SHANNON STAPLETON

REUTERS

Author Christopher Hitchens poses for a portrait outside his hotel in New York in this June 7, 2010 file photo. Hitchens, 62, died of complications from esophageal cancer on December 15, 2011

I have struggled to come up with words to memorialize my friend Christopher Hitchens. It occurs to me that were Hitch given such a task, he would quickly produce several pungent paragraphs packed with provocative ideas, erudite literary references, and razor-sharp humor – all composed in perfect sentences. Even in his last weeks of cancer progression — when, as he wrote, “more and more [was] being relentlessly subtracted from less and less” — Christopher maintained the tireless ability to deliver treasures from his own richly-stocked intellectual shop in the marketplace of ideas. He once said to me that he was more afraid of boredom than of death.

Perhaps it seems odd that a physician-scientist who has written about his own conversion to Christianity should become close friends with an avowed atheist whose book subtitle is “how religion poisons everything.” Perhaps that seems particularly strange in Washington, D.C., where even minor differences of philosophy or politics can be grounds for permanent personal animosity.

And certainly my friendship with Hitch did not begin easily. I attended a small dinner function for him after he had debated an unfailingly polite British scientist-Christian about the rationality of faith. In the debate, fueled by the ever present glass of scotch, Hitch’s one-liners had become increasingly outrageous, and he was scoring many points with the audience of university undergraduates. In the aftermath, I thought it would be interesting to engage him on what I thought to be a more serious question – whether it is possible for a strict atheist, who sees all of human behavior as a consequence of evolution, to claim any real status for the concepts of good and evil — or whether these must be considered wholly as artifacts of natural selection, of no real significance. Hitch’s response was explosive, decrying the question as utterly childish – just as a good debater would do. Let’s just say we didn’t shed further light on the matter at that time.

In a later debate about faith with Hitch at a small gathering, I found that his penetrating approach to the topic was an excellent stimulus to sharpening my own thinking about the issues. His knowledge of world religions was truly impressive — he had a much more detailed grasp of the Christian Bible than most Christians do. What he didn’t seem to be able to understand was how a thinking person could be a follower of Jesus. Perhaps I hoped to help with that.

Hitch and I were brought together in a very different way 18 months ago — induced by the diabolical and malignant expansion of renegade cells in Christopher’s esophagus. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (and Hitch was quick to note that there is no stage 5), his prognosis was grim. But advances in cancer diagnostics and therapeutics are happening rapidly now, built upon the advances made possible by the Human Genome Project. I reached out to Hitch and his wife Carol Blue, and thus began an unforgettable series of evening meetings at their apartment near Dupont Circle. I would arrive on my Harley, wine and cheese would appear, and we would discourse about the latest developments in medical research — or perhaps the latest turn in Washington politics. Whenever I had the chance, I would ask Hitch to tell me about some other project he was working on — and out would come tumbling astounding discourses on Orwell, or G.K. Chesterton, or Jefferson. I brought him my own just-published book Belief - a collection of readings from Plato to Pascal to Plantinga on faith and reason – and we agreed that the best entry was from a sermon entitled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Many options were considered to identify an approach to Hitch’s cancer that might buy time. At my urging, his tumor cells were analyzed in Boston, but not found to have any of the actionable changes that might suggest specific therapies. But that was just a snapshot — why not the whole picture? Hitch to travelled to St. Louis, where as part of a research project the entire sequence of the genes in his cancer cells was determined by experts in cancer genomics at Washington University. To our surprise and delight, a mutation was identified in a gene that had not previously been associated with esophageal cancer, but suggested the possibility of response to drugs that had recently been developed for leukemia.

The experimental drugs were tried, and may well have provided some benefit – but it is impossible to judge that from a single case. The relentless advance of other complications of his advanced disease, and the need to stop therapy often because of pneumonia, made it hard to judge whether the drugs were working. Hitch soldiered on, never complaining, never wanting his illness to be the topic of conversation if something more interesting could be identified.

Through all of this, we became close friends. He knew I was praying for him, and welcomed that — though he was also quite sure that no one was listening. He never showed any sign of retreating from his own atheist position — in fact, he warned his followers early on that they should reject any suggestion that such weakening of resolve was occurring. But his views seemed to soften toward those of us caught up in what he considered to be a religious delusion, and the hard edge I had seen when we first met gave way to a bemused acceptance. He signed my copy of his new book “from a fellow sinner,” and his e-mails were always signed “Love, Christopher.”

In my last face to face meeting with Christopher, he was clearly weakening. He openly questioned whether it might be time to back away from aggressive therapeutic interventions, as those were clearly costing him a lot. My arm around his bony shoulder, I noted how much of a toll this terrible disease had taken on his body, though his mind burned as bright as ever. Encouraged by his tireless champion Carol, he chose to press on, travelling to Houston for the full court press, rallying once again, continuing to write brilliantly for three more months, and almost convincing us all that he really was indestructible. But the great voice finally fell silent on December 15.

I will miss Christopher. I will miss the brilliant turn of phrase, the good-natured banter, the wry sideways smile when he was about to make a remark that would make me laugh out loud. No doubt he now knows the answer to the question of whether there is more to the spirit than just atoms and molecules. I hope he was surprised by the answer. I hope to hear him tell about it someday. He will tell it really well.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. is director of the National Institutes of Health

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  • efavorite

    The problem is that the christian god would have consigned Christopher to hell for not believing ini him, and unless you think that’s where you are going, there’s no chance, God or not, that you’ll be seeing Hitch again.

  • Victoria55

    Thank you for this thoughtful column, and thank you so much for taking part in his care.

  • SODDI

    Must not have been much of a friend, the way your last statements disrespect him even in death.

  • islauka

    ” I hope to hear him tell about it someday.” Either I’m missing something here or Dr. Collins has fabricated a new tenet of Christian theology.

  • thebump

    Nonsense. God is merciful, and in his earthly life Hitchens was a person of integrity who took God more seriously than many so-called believers.

  • beauleeman

    “But the great voice finally fell silent on December 15.”

    I seriously doubt that that will be the case, Francis. Just as the Cosmos is expanding, we are expanding with it; if not in body, assuredly in spirit. But let me clarify my remark.

    Like you, I’m into music, both guitar and piano. Ten years back, Songbooks Unlimited ran a holiday special, with songbooks at practically give-away prices. I took advantage, and bought enough books that when the carton came it must have weighed around 50 pounds.

    Some were technique books, others compilations, and still others stylistic books with composers’ and/or performers arrangements.

    One of them was “the Elegant Piano Stylings of Matt Dennis”, Elkay Music. It contained jazz standards, with an original and a Dennis’ arrangement of each. When I got the books, I spent a week or so going over through each one, then filing them on a shelf with the others.

    It was seven years ago nearly to the day [fall of 2002] that I pulled out the Dennis book, opened it, and began to play through it. All at once, I had this tingling feeling come over me, and it was quite unmistakable. The last time I had had a similar feeling, was when my dad passed away. I had traveled out of state to the ceremony, given a eulogy, and returned home. That night, and for several nights afterward, I had the unmistakable feeling of him (his spirit, I guess) dropping in and just kind of hanging around my shop while I worked.

    But this time, the feeling was more pronounced, and it came on quite suddenly. I continued to play, and the tingling continued, stronger the more I played. It was kind of like chills up and down your spine. My thought was, could it possibly be …. Matt Dennis?

    Just on a hunch, I got up and went to my computer. I typed ‘google.com’, “matt dennis”, and the word “died”. I almost fell on the floor when the first hit said, “Matt Dennis, a singer, pianist and composer who wrote “Angel Eyes” and a handful of other standards recorded by artists r

  • ThomasBaum

    As I have said before, God’s Mercy and God’s Justice are so intertwined as to be One.

    It’s a shame that so many of the so-called believers in God seem to fall under the old saying: God created us in His Image and Likeness and we have been trying to return the favor ever since.

  • ThomasBaum

    I don’t see any disrespect in his last statements concerning his friend and I don’t think that his friend would have either.

  • ThomasBaum

    What are you talking about concerning “has fabricated a new tenet of Christian theology”?

    “Christian theology” is all about the end of this earthly life not being the end.

  • islauka

    Scripture is quite clear in differentiating between the eternal outcome of a believer in Christ and that of one who is not. Mr. Hitchens, by his own aggressive account, was not a believer. On the other hand, Dr. Collins is. No matter what your opinion of the Bible- pure mythology or the word of God- it is evident that there’s not going to be a lot of conversation going on between believer and unbeliever.

    I can only assume that Dr. Collins is holding out for hope that Mr. Hitchens had a change of heart, or rather I should say his heart was changed, at the end.

  • allinthistogether

    My read of the column indicates that Mr. Collins has a great deal of respect for Hitchens and gratefully admits to having learned much from him. No disrespect evident.

  • Catken1

    Or maybe God doesn’t set some of his beloved children on fire in agony forever and ever for believing the wrong thing.
    And maybe it’s not sane or kind to worship a Father who does that sort of thing.

  • ThomasBaum

    islauka wrote:

    “Scripture is quite clear in differentiating between the eternal outcome of a believer in Christ and that of one who is not.”

    Really?

    Could one of the things you are talking about be where it says that those that do not believe are condemned?

    If so, do you know that condemned in this case means judged, not the condemnation that many seem to believe and also that many seem to want it to be.

    Does it not also say that what one does and does not do to their fellow man is important?

    Does it not also say in what are referred to as the Beatitudes, “Blessed are the …. , for theirs is the …”, it does NOT say ‘Blessed are the…. if they believe that Jesus is Who He Is’, does it?

    It may seem evident to you that “there’s not going to be a lot of conversation going on between believer and unbeliever”, but that does not make it so.

    As I have said before, many believers seem to fall into the old saying: God created usl in His Image and Likeness and we have been trying to return the favor ever since.

    Another thing that I have said many times is that if God were even remotely like what many who know God’s Name think God to be and many want God to be, who with a drop of decency running thru their veins would want to have anything to do with a being such as that?

  • Rongoklunk

    Nice to see you commenting again EFavorite.

    On another thread someone wrote that Hitchens doubted before but they bet he knows now. Then I see a letter to my local newspaper from a Muslim guy saying the same thing.

    Will they ever understand that the afterlife – as Carl Sagan said – is just wishful thinking. It’s like the fear of death itself is what drives the terrified into the arms of god, who – they hope and pray – will save them from death. Hitchens, and nonbelievers in general – are just not that scared of being dead. As Hitch said..When you’re dead, you’re dead. You don’t know you’re dead. It’s what they call reality.

  • islauka

    @Tom. To answer your first question, yes, really. Even a cursory glance at the New Testament will reveal this. As for the Beatitudes and the treatment of our fellow man, I have no idea how you are trying to apply these to the discussion.

    @Cat. I have found it to be a good practice not to assume someone is implying a particular view, when they have not stated as much.

  • ThomasBaum

    islauka wrote:

    “As for the Beatitudes and the treatment of our fellow man, I have no idea how you are trying to apply these to the discussion.”

    Seems to me to be self-explanatory, maybe you should reread what I wrote and try to set aside your preconceived notions while you read what I wrote.

  • NevTelen

    The relationship between Christopher Hitchens and Francis Collins is an intriguing one. However, this piece, rather than providing much insight into Christopher Hitchens this a largely a self-congratulatory column about Francis Collins. Furthermore, even though this is written by an author identified solely as the Director of the National Institutes of Health, a government position, Francis Collins takes the opportunity, once again, to inappropriately express his personal religious views.