If you’re ever feeling down about your life, feeling like you’re sick and tired of being sick and tired, just ready to give up, take a gander at how Roger Ebert is holding up.
The longtime writer and movie critic for the Chicago Sun-Times, best known for his work on the shows Siskel & Ebert and Ebert & Roeper, was diagnosed with thyroid cancer. In 2006, he began undergoing radiation therapy for the cancer, therapy that ultimately killed the cells in his jaw and weakened his carotid artery to the point that he nearly bled to death. Today, Ebert is unable to speak, eat, or drink; he has no lower jaw (surgeries to repair it have repeatedly failed, and Ebert has given up on the process).
A lesser person might be embittered, frustrated, and despondent. And yet, as anyone who’s followed Ebert’s writing or tweeting of late knows, Ebert is far from those. He has written about his affliction with grace and humor, and a strong acceptance of his new normal. That doesn’t mean that he doesn’t recognize or mourn what he’s lost, but he does it gracefully, as with his post from January in which he discussed his inability to consume food or drink:
Isn’t it sad to be unable eat or drink? Not as sad as you might imagine. I save an enormous amount of time. I have control of my weight. Everything agrees with me. And so on.
What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They’re the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done — probably most of our recreational talking. That’s what I miss. Because I can’t speak that’s’s another turn of the blade. I can sit at a table and vicariously enjoy the conversation, which is why I enjoy pals like my friend McHugh so much, because he rarely notices if anyone else isn’t speaking. But to attend a “business dinner” is a species of torture. I’m no good at business anyway, but at least if I’m being bad at it at Joe’s Stone Crab there are consolations.
The entire column, as with much of Ebert’s writing, is worth the click-through; snippets really can’t do it justice.
Ebert has faced his illness and the recovery from it without wallowing in fear, or clutching for answers. He has held fast to his humanist beliefs, even at a time when the idea of an infinite, perfect afterlife might bring some comfort. He has accepted his own mortality with a wisdom that I, struggling with the prospect of a non-life-threatening disease that can be cured relatively easily, envy deeply.
That essay deserves quoting too, for Ebert gets close to how I feel about the meaning of life, even as I hope for something beyond the life I have:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.
That’s a beautiful sentiment, and spot on; this life is blessing enough. If we are lucky enough that there is an afterlife, it is a bonus; we do not need it. We are gifted enough already.
Ebert is in the news because of a new profile of him in Esquire, one that portrays him as he is — not as a saint or a martyr, but as a person who has experienced a severe illness and who is still dealing with the scars left by it. A man who is not so lost in his suffering to forget to care for those around him, including his wife, Chaz, who he is clearly still in love with after 18 years of marriage, or his late partner on Siskel & Ebert, and his good friend, Gene Siskel, whose death at the hands of brain cancer still affects Ebert. In what is perhaps the most poignant part of the piece, Ebert shows his interviewer a piece he wrote about Siskel (showing previously written work is easier than using his text pad, which speaks for him these days):
Ebert keeps scrolling down. Below his journal he had embedded video of his first show alone, the balcony seat empty across the aisle. It was a tribute, in three parts. He wants to watch them now, because he wants to remember, but at the bottom of the page there are only three big black squares. In the middle of the squares, white type reads: “Content deleted. This video is no longer available because it has been deleted.” Ebert leans into the screen, trying to figure out what’s happened. He looks across at Chaz. The top half of his face turns red, and his eyes well up again, but this time, it’s not sadness surfacing. He’s shaking. It’s anger.
Chaz looks over his shoulder at the screen. “Those fu — ” she says, catching herself.
They think it’s Disney again — that they’ve taken down the videos. Terms-of-use violation.
This time, the anger lasts long enough for Ebert to write it down. He opens a new page in his text-to-speech program, a blank white sheet. He types in capital letters, stabbing at the keys with his delicate, trembling hands: MY TRIBUTE, appears behind the cursor in the top left corner. ON THE FIRST SHOW AFTER HIS DEATH. But Ebert doesn’t press the button that fires up the speakers. He presses a different button, a button that makes the words bigger. He presses the button again and again and again, the words growing bigger and bigger and bigger until they become too big to fit the screen, now they’re just letters, but he keeps hitting the button, bigger and bigger still, now just shapes and angles, just geometry filling the white screen with black like the three squares. Roger Ebert is shaking, his entire body is shaking, and he’s still hitting the button, bang, bang, bang, and he’s shouting now. He’s standing outside on the street corner and he’s arching his back and he’s shouting at the top of his lungs.
It’s not anger at his plight. Ebert’s anger is focused on more righteous, more evil things, like the corporate wizards at Disney who think blocking his tribute to a fallen friend is somehow protecting the market for the release of a Siskel & Ebert box set some day.
Ebert can’t shout, of course, and yet he can; his writing remains cogent and his mind remains sharp. He is standing against the coming darkness — the darkness that comes for all of us — with his head held high, without apology. Seeing the photo in Esquire, the one that accompanies this post, Ebert wrote, “Not a lovely sight. But then I am not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, well, what the hell. It’s just as well it’s out there. That’s how I look, after all.”
Ebert is wrong about one thing: he is still a lovely sight. He’s a brilliant writer and by all appearances a good and decent man. Not perfect. But good. Here’s hoping that he continues to be for many years to come.