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Hitchens' Widow On Mourning And 'Mortality'

Christopher Hitchens with his wife, Carol Blue, during a trip to Romania in 1989.
Courtesy of Carol Blue
Christopher Hitchens with his wife, Carol Blue, during a trip to Romania in 1989.

For 18 months, while undergoing treatment for esophageal cancer, Christopher Hitchens chronicled his year of "living dyingly" in a series of essays for Vanity Fair. Those essays, as well as never-before published notes from the end of his life, are compiled in the posthumous book Mortality.

The columnist, author and avowed atheist died Dec. 15. Carol Blue, Hitchens' wife of 20 years, shares memories of her husband and moments from their final days together in the book's afterword.

"He never once complained privately throughout this odyssey," she tells NPR's Neal Conan. "He really stayed very much himself, but in a diminished and sometimes sad form. But he wrote and he read and he talked, and he was a father and he was a husband and he was a friend, as he had been before. It was really quite extraordinary."

She talks about the treatments, his beliefs and the fiery spirit that he exhibited to his last day.

Interview Highlights

On his cancer treatments

"In the book, he describes the process of receiving this wonderful form of radiation that's only available in a few hospitals, called proton radiation. And its beauty is that the atoms behave differently.

"So, normal radiation, the photons enter the body, burning their way through all the good tissue, hit the mark and then burn their way out — whereas, with proton, it deposits almost no radiation on the way in, hits the target, the tumor, with all of its power and then stops.

"So you're able to really use much higher doses and spare all the normal tissue. That being said, it still hurt him very much in his esophagus after the treatment, and he would wince with pain when he was swallowing, and he was very, very stoic. ...

"The esophagus repaired, the pain stopped. ... So retrospectively, he would say, of course it was worth it. And he wanted to live at almost any cost, as long as he had his marbles and his voice."

On using battle terminology to describe 'fighting cancer'

"He said, 'I'm not fighting it; it's fighting me.' And he also said, rightly, that this wasn't a battle he volunteered for. Actually, he didn't like the word 'battle,' but this wasn't a struggle he entered into voluntarily. He had no choice. ... You can't be courageous, necessarily, about something that's forced upon you, upon which you have no choice. I think he was quite courageous in the way he handled that struggle."

On whether he re-evaluated his atheism

"It really didn't come up at the end at all. I mean, of course it was an end he didn't know was an end, but nonetheless it just wasn't of interest. ... He was asking for various poems and books, and of course he was very interested in his family and full of love for them. And it just didn't register. ...

"I think the only thing Christopher thought was ... why would it be thought to be a good thing that out of fear at the very last moment you would allegedly change your convictions and your beliefs of a lifetime?"

On the day he died

"He was sick for a long time, but the ending was rather like getting a phone call and being told your husband has died in a car crash. He didn't expect the ending when it came. ..."

"He had really kind of surprised his oncologist by how well he was doing in knocking back the cancer, and he had been afforded the kind of state-of-the-art treatments that aren't available to almost anyone, even in the best hospitals in the country. And then he caught a very virulent pneumonia ... which was only diagnosed a few days before and was sort of starting to get better, but it won out in the end."

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Corrected: September 21, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
An audio clip of Christopher Hitchens from 2007 that is heard in this show includes incorrect information regarding the death of David Hume. Hume died on Aug. 25, 1776, not July 4 as indicated by Hitchens.