Christopher Hitchens has cancer. And if it were any indication by his new Vanity Fair article, he would like you to believe he is dying of it. What’s so poignant about artists in moments of utter humility is that they are still artistic. Topic of Cancer was one of the most painfully beautiful pieces I have read in a long time. Narcissists, like Hitchens and myself, love this sort of writing. It ensures we are not alone in our experiences and makes people love us even more in our moments when we need love most.
A little over a year ago I made an odd short film about death for a “Death and the Media” class. I interviewed some friends about their experiences and opinions on the matter. I don’t really remember the purpose of the film — or even if it really had one (though I wrote a whole paper about it?) — but I do remember being impressed with how willingly my peers opened up and spoke about the death of parents, the odd belief in a hereafter, and strangely enough, ghosts. They were just telling me their innermost thoughts and I didn’t know why.
Like most term papers and projects, I finished it up, got an A in the course, and then never thought about it again. That is, until a couple weeks ago, when my boyfriend and I got into a late-night semi-boozy argument about ghosts and heaven and dead grandmothers and dogs and why be an atheist if you became an atheist to stop being a preachy jerk in the first place??! Needless to say, it was one of those gnashing of teeth talks where you’re testing boundaries to see how far you can go before one of you hands over the white flag. Or, you know, the white panties. Hitchens would be proud.
A couple of weeks later, we found ourselves at a house on a river in the Catskills. A bunch of my friends (both coupled and single) booked a four-day rental. When a single friend found out she’d be “banished” to the basement, she made sure we knew of her objection. “I can’t sleep down there, I just can’t. It has no windows!” Because this protest came late at night, after campfire drinking and a ten person dance party that felt like a fever dream, we found the best way to accommodate her (the master bedroom?) and another couple slept in the basement.
The next afternoon, we decided to jump in the river. The river was a gushing flow of Oregon Trail level unpredictability. The snapping turtles, they will bite your toes off. The current will take you under. A log will fall on you, knock you unconscious, and you will drown. We all went in, even the girl that was afraid of the basement. We swam downstream, holding hands when needed, propping each other up, and losing our flip-flops in the current. Teamwork, even in the face of loss. It was the exact opposite of sitting in an office. You can’t worry about what you look like in a bikini when you are holding onto a spruce for dear life (even if you can feel the water sploosh against your thighs). It felt fantastic.
On our way back to shore, the current seemed to pick up. We were on one side of the river, and our cabin on the other. My boyfriend went first, and I watched as he floundered and flailed and bravely doggy paddled his way to shore. Next we sent a friend who claims to not be able to swim. She crossed the river like a champ, with nary a branch handed to her. It was my turn next, and I thought, “I’ve got this.” I hardly stepped in when my confidence, much like my flip-flops, was taken away in a rush of dirt, mud and river-hellfire. My boyfriend had to jump in to save me. He pulled me to shore like a hunted tuna. In the worst-case scenario, I could have died.
Death and sex ride in a convertible together on the highway of life. The French call orgasms “la petite mort” (the little death), and vampires, though dead, are always bangable. As far as my personal experience goes, saying, “Remember when you saved my life?” later that night was a lot hotter than, “Wanna go make out?”
Anyway, back to the river. After showers, and BBQ, and a campfire that couldn’t be beat, we drew straws to see who would be sleeping downstairs that night. The boyfriend and I won, and we spent the night in the bedroom we started in. But I lay awake and did some thinking. What should we be afraid of in a room without windows? The darkness? The silence? The possibility that all the air will disappear and we will suffocate? The inability to escape? Ghosts?
And what should we be afraid of in a rapid river? Snapping turtles? unpredictable currents? Bashing our heads on rocks? Drifting off to a town that hangs Confederate Flags on the buildings? Swallowing tadpoles? Vaginal infections from the dirty water? Oh my!
To me, the river scenarios seem much realer. And yet, we take the risk. We must deny that the sun, the booze, the rivers, and white bread will eventually kill us. As Hitchens said, “In one way, I suppose, I have been “in denial” for some time, knowingly burning the candle at both ends and finding that it often gives a lovely light. But for precisely that reason, I can’t see myself smiting my brow with shock or hear myself whining about how it’s all so unfair: I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”
At some point, we’re all going to croak.
So we jump in the known and avoid what we can’t see or be sure of because the possibility is scarier than the reality. We will gleefully rush into an obviously dangerous situation if everyone else is doing it, rather than be alone with ourselves in a dark room. Being alone, of course, is the absolute hell we fear the most. Why have it here on earth?
It wasn’t until we were away from the Catskills, back in the city and at our desks that I realized, had we dictated that we all must sleep in the basement together, in a big sweaty pile, with our arms outstretched and in each other’s faces, our friend might not have been so afraid. Maybe next year. If, you know, we make it.