Friday, December 16, 2011

Two Brothers - Two Beliefs - Two Revolted - One Returned: Peter Hitchens On The Death Of His Brother

Why Christopher Hitchens grew up to be such a fervent atheist is unclear. He reports in his autobiography of his mother's suicide during an extra-marital affair with an Anglican priest. We never know the forces playing on people's hearts. His brother, Peter Hitchens, is a British journalist, author and broadcaster in the UK who has responded very differently to their common childhood. In his book, "The Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me To Faith," Peter does a fine job explaining his own spiritual journey. Today he wrote a moving eulogy for his brother that I wanted to share.

PETER HITCHENS: In Memoriam, my courageous brother Christopher, 1949-2011
By Peter Hitchens

How odd it is to hear of your own brother’s death on an early morning radio bulletin. How odd it is for a private loss to be a public event.

I wouldn’t normally dream of writing about such a thing here, and I doubt if many people would expect me to. It is made even odder by the fact that I am a minor celebrity myself. And that the, ah, complex relationship between me and my brother has been public property.

I have this morning turned down three invitations to talk on the radio about my brother. I had a powerful feeling that it would be wrong to do so, not immediately explicable but strong enough to persuade me to say a polite ‘no thank you’.

And I have spent most of the day so far responding, with regrettable brevity, to the many kind and thoughtful expressions of sympathy that I have received, some from complete strangers.

Many more such messages are arriving as comments here. My thanks for all of them. They are much appreciated not only by me but by my brother’s family.

Much of civilisation rests on the proper response to death, simple unalloyed kindness, the desire to show sympathy for irrecoverable loss, the understanding that a unique and irreplaceable something has been lost to us. If we ceased to care, we wouldn’t be properly human.

So, odd as it would be if this were a wholly private matter, I think it would be strange if I did not post something here, partly to thank the many who have sent their kind wishes and expressed their sympathy, and partly to provide my first raw attempt at a eulogy for my closest living relative, someone who in many ways I have known better – and certainly longer - than anyone else alive.

It is certainly raw. Last week I saw my brother for the last time in a fairly grim hospital room in Houston, Texas. He was in great pain, and suffering in several other ways I will not describe. But he was wholly conscious and in command of his wits, and able to speak clearly.

We both knew it was the last time we would see each other, though being Englishmen of a certain generation, neither of us would have dreamed of actually saying so. We parted on good terms, though our conversation had been (as had our e-mail correspondence for some months) cautious and confined to subjects that would not easily lead to conflict. In this I think we were a little like chess-players, working out many possible moves in advance, neither of us wanting any more quarrels of any kind.

At one stage – and I am so sad this never happened – he wrote to me saying he hoped for a ‘soft landing’ (code, I think for abandoning any further attempts to combat his disease) and to go home to his beautiful apartment in Washington DC.

There, he suggested, we could go through his bookshelves, as there were some books and other possessions he wanted me to have. I couldn’t have cared less about these things, but I had greatly hoped to have that conversation, which would have been a particularly good way of saying farewell.

But alas, it never happened. He never went home and now never will. Never, there it is, that inflexible word that trails close behind that other non-negotiable syllable, death. Even so, we did what we could in Houston, as the doctors, the nurses, the cleaners, and who knows who else, bustled in and out.

I forgot, till I left, that I was wearing a ludicrous surgical mask and gown, and surgical gloves (I am still not sure whose benefit this was for, but it was obligatory) all the time I was sitting there, and – this is extraordinary – time seemed to me to pass incredibly swiftly in that room. I was shocked when the moment came to leave for the airport, that it had come so soon.

Here’s a thing I will say now without hesitation, unqualified and important. The one word that comes to mind when I think of my brother is ‘courage’. By this I don’t mean the lack of fear which some people have, which enables them to do very dangerous or frightening things because they have no idea what it is to be afraid. I mean a courage which overcomes real fear, while actually experiencing it.

I don’t have much of this myself, so I recognise it (and envy it) in others. I have a memory which I cannot place precisely in time, of the two of us scrambling on a high rooftop, the sort of crazy escapade that boys of our generation still went on, where we should not have been.

A moment came when, unable to climb back over the steep slates, the only way down was to jump over a high gap on to a narrow ledge. I couldn’t do it. He used his own courage (the real thing can always communicate itself to others) to show me, and persuade me, that I could.

I’d add here that he was for a while an enthusiastic rock climber, something I could never do, and something which people who have come to know him recently would not be likely to guess.

He would always rather fight than give way, not for its own sake but because it came naturally to him. Like me, he was small for his age during his entire childhood and I have another memory of him, white-faced, slight and thin as we all were in those more austere times, furious, standing up to some bully or other in the playground of a school we attended at the same time.

This explains plenty. I offer it because the word ‘courage’ is often misused today. People sometimes tell me that I have been ‘courageous’ to say something moderately controversial in a public place. Not a bit of it. This is not courage. Courage is deliberately taking a known risk, sometimes physical, sometimes to your livelihood, because you think it is too important not to.

My brother possessed this virtue to the very end, and if I often disagreed with the purposes for which he used it, I never doubted the quality or ceased to admire it. I’ve mentioned here before C.S.Lewis’s statement that courage is the supreme virtue, making all the others possible. It should be praised and celebrated, and is the thing I‘d most wish to remember.

We got on surprisingly well in the past few months, better than for about 50 years as it happens. At such times one tends to remember childhood more clearly than at others, though I have always had a remarkably clear memory of much of mine. I am still baffled by how far we both came, in our different ways, from the small, quiet, shabby world of chilly, sombre rented houses and austere boarding schools, of battered and declining naval seaports, not specially cultured, not book-lined or literary or showy but plain, dutiful and unassuming, we took the courses we did.

Two pieces of verse come to mind, one from Hilaire Belloc’s ’Dedicatory Ode’

‘From quiet homes and first beginnings, out to the undiscovered ends, there’s nothing worth the wear of winning but laughter and the love of friends’

I have always found this passage unexpectedly moving because of something that lies beneath the words, good and largely true though they are. When I hear it, I see in my mind’s eye a narrow, half-lit entrance hall with a slowly-ticking clock in it, and a half-open door beyond which somebody is waiting for news of a child who long ago left home.

And T.S.Eliot’s ‘Little Gidding’ (one of the Four Quartets)

‘We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time’

These words I love because I have found them to be increasingly and powerfully true. In my beginning, as Eliot wrote elsewhere in the Quartets, is my end. Alpha et Omega.


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