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"I Have Seen the Eternal Footman"

The lastest Vanity Fair piece by Christopher Hitchens really struck a chord with myself and others. Hitchens, for those who are unaware, is one of the world's best writers, thinkers and debaters (even if everyone does not always agree with his principles or beliefs). He is also in the midst of stage IV cancer, diagnosed last summer, and it would appear to be getting the better of him (as cancer unfortunately often does).

I found the following passage of his latest piece particularly moving:

Deprivation of the ability to speak is more like an attack of impotence, or the amputation of part of the personality. To a great degree, in public and private, I “was” my voice. All the rituals and etiquette of conversation, from clearing the throat in preparation for the telling of an extremely long and taxing joke to (in younger days) trying to make my proposals more persuasive as I sank the tone by a strategic octave of shame, were innate and essential to me. I have never been able to sing, but I could once recite poetry and quote prose and was sometimes even asked to do so. And timing is everything: the exquisite moment when one can break in and cap a story, or turn a line for a laugh, or ridicule an opponent. I lived for moments like that.
This resonates with me because, like Hitchens, I "am" my voice. If I may be allowed to indulge in a bit of self-promotion for a moment, it has long been remarked upon that I have a nice, deep voice. 'A good voice for radio,' as many have said over the years. In fact, I partook in several radio theatre productions during the early 1990s, and used to host my own radio music program from 1995-97. The bit of ego-stroking I received for my voice was typically used to compensate for what I call my 'rather average' (at best) looks. I've never been a terribly striking individual to physically behold, so my mind and, by extension, my voice, have been purposefully cultivated in an attempt to impress people. Sometimes, it works.

This is why, in early 2010, I panicked a bit when it became clear over the course of a few months that I might possibly have thyroid cancer, and that the thyroid gland would need to be surgically removed. Aside from all the normal complications that can arise during and after a multi-hour surgery, my doctor informed me that, with this particular procedure, there was the risk of nicking the vocal cords and/or having something "really terrible" go wrong, and thereafter requiring the use of a tracheotomy. Permanently.

You might well imagine my fear at the prospect of losing my voice. Now, one doesn't have to have developed a complex psychological crutch on their voice -- as I have -- in order to be afraid of losing it, but it was doubly horrifying for me to think of such an outcome. A lifetime's flow of compliments about my "mellifluous" voice went streaming through my head on a daily basis leading up to the surgery. This was it. My one great asset was in danger of being taken away or, perhaps, altered into insignificance. No more joke-telling, no more spinning of stories of everyday occurrences that people might find interesting. No more at-home 'singing.'

Thankfully, the surgery went well. The thyroid gland was removed and, upon being sent to the Mayo Clinic for study, was found to be cancerous (so it was a good think they took it out). Aside from a temporary higher pitch and slight cracking, my voice remained unscathed. In pretty much every aspect, I felt very lucky and very fortunate.

It is thus with a pang of recongition that I read Hitchens's Vanity Fair article about losing his voice to cancer, much the same as when I think about Roger Ebert's battles with the diseases that robbed him of the ability to speak. The three of us share a common foe with millions of others, and are at three different levels of the battle. I am in remission and, aside from a scarred-over incision on the neck, relatively unscathed. Ebert, too, is in remission, but is no longer capable of speaking, or consuming food through his mouth. Hitchens, unfortunately, is likely on a path toward the undiscovered country much sooner than the rest of us.

Our life stories on this earth all end in the same way. There are different causes for that ending, but it remains immovable. All of our journeys are different, and everyone has their own sorrow somewhere within them. But I actually feel fortunate for my sorrow. In this case, it made me that much more appreciative of the life I have. To be reminded of what can be lost is perhaps, while not an oft-desired occasion, a very effective way to really appreciate what we've got. And while now, in May of 2011, Christopher Hitchens may be facing the spectre of the eternal footman, I know that it is only a matter of time before I join him and the billions of others before us who have already done so. Hopefully, until then, my voice will hold out.


  1. Hitchens' columns regarding his experience with cancer have been very helpful for me. I'm still working on getting rid of Hodgkin's lymphoma. While it's true that both Hitch and I have cancer, to compare mine to his would be like comparing a rhinovirus to hepatitis.

    I'm hopeful that my experience with cancer, and the unlooked for help of others like you, Ebert, & Hitchens, is helping me to find my own voice.


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