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June 19, 2011

The Enemy

Pandemonium, John Martin, 1825
In an essay in Vanity Fair in December 2001 the incomparable Christopher Hitchens described wandering through the charred and broken remains of lower Manhattan. He reflected on New York as the center of the world; a place of multiculturalism and openness that was horribly assaulted by nihilists and psychopaths. I'll never forget what he said:
One has to be capable of knowing when something is worth fighting for. One has to be capable of knowing an enemy when one sees one.
As much as we like primary literature, every so often you have to remind yourself that disease is the enemy, and like the enemy Hitchens recognized in the assailants of New York, disease is worth fighting. Aleksander Hemon's haunting piece The Aquarium in this week's New Yorker is the best account of a family struggling with disease I have read in years, possibly ever. His infant daughter is diagnosed with a rare brain tumor and goes on to die in the PICU at Children's Memorial Hospital in Chicago (where I work). Along the way she is subjected to multiple chemo regimens:
Vincristine, Methotrexate, Etoposide, Cyclophosphamide, and Cistplatin - creatures of a particularly malign demonology.
His description of his daughter's cardiac arrest and death is almost unreadable unless you give yourself a break in the middle. Finally, after she is gone, Hemon reflects on her death and suffering in a way that I think we would do well to remember:
One of the most despicable religious fallacies is that suffering is ennobling --that it is a step on the path to some kind of enlightenment or salvation. Isabel's suffering and death did nothing for her, or us, or the world. We learned no lessons worth learning; we acquired no experience that could benefit anyone. And Isabel most certainly did not earn ascension to a better place, as there was no better place for her than at home with her family. Without Isabel, [my wife] and I were left with oceans of love we could no longer dispense; we found ourselves with excesses of time that we used to devote to her; we had to live in a void that could be filled only be Isabel. Her indelible absence is now an organ in our bodies, whose sole function is continuous secretion of sorrow.