Two Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert

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.

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8 Responses to Two Thumbs Up for Roger Ebert

  1. 1
    nojojojo says:

    This is lovely, despite the sorrow I feel at seeing how badly this illness has injured him. But I’m glad to see he’s still taking things in stride, and is still very much enjoying life. Thanks for posting this.

  2. 2
    Silenced is Foo says:

    Yeah, I read it a few days ago on fark. It had me welling up by the midpoint. I would be proud to be half the man that Ebert is right now.

    It’s funny, I knew for years he’d lost the power of speech… I had no idea what his life situation was like.

    One thing: the article makes the implication that he believes he is serenely accepting imminent death… which, from what it sounds like, he would, if it were imminent.

    But, from his twitter:

    I’m physically feeling tip-top these days. It’s true I’m dying–but no faster than anyone else.

    Also, this phrase should be tattooed on the inside of all of our eyelids:

    I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.

  3. 3
    Cooker says:

    I couldn’t take my eyes of the article either. It was interesting- I recommended it to others and the only feedback I got was from someone who couldn’t get through it because it was so depressing- definitely not the response I expected. I think nothing tweaks most currently able bodied people out like the thought of having to imagine life without the ability to speak. I have seen this myself as people reacted to my father- the world’s biggest extrovert- as he has adjusted to life with profound aphasia and apraxia after a massive stroke. I must say, while I think that Roger Ebert is a captivating and amazing man, I have trouble with the idea that a person who acquired a similar disability and was frustrated and bitter is necessarily a “lesser” person than Ebert. I don’t think we can judge folks as being lesser or better people based on how they adjust to life with a serious disability.

  4. 4
    attack_laurel says:

    Okay, I’m crying now.

    And he is beautiful.

    There’s nothing wrong with being bitter or angry at a crushing blow that life has dealt you, though – it is nicer for everyone talking about him that Ebert is such a genuinely wonderful, gracious and inspiring man, but if he had gone the other way, into angry diatribes, or even seclusion, he’d still be a great man with a great body of work. We all have good days an bad days, and it’s not up to Ebert to make us all comfortable with his condition.

    Speaking of which, I’m still sending good thoughts your way! :)

  5. 5
    Mandolin says:

    “There’s nothing wrong with being bitter or angry at a crushing blow that life has dealt you, though – it is nicer for everyone talking about him that Ebert is such a genuinely wonderful, gracious and inspiring man, but if he had gone the other way, into angry diatribes, or even seclusion, he’d still be a great man with a great body of work. We all have good days an bad days, and it’s not up to Ebert to make us all comfortable with his condition.”


    Also, seconded that the quote SiF pulled is really profound.

  6. 6
    Jake Squid says:

    I like his quip about his recommendation for meaningful weight loss.

    Ebert is a lucky guy and it’s great that he appreciates it. Like him, I hope he doesn’t suffer from much pain.

  7. 7
    lauren says:

    Thirded, because this

    A lesser person might be embittered, frustrated, and despondent

    made me really uncomfortable. Because there are far too many people out there demanding that everybody “take things gracefully”, telling people to be “happy with what they got” etc. It is a tactic that is often used to silence the voices of those who have disabilities or are severely ill- to tell them that that they only deserve to be listened to when they are being positive. Really the “good cripple” who never complains, always is greatful for however little he is given and never wants to bother anybody- that is an incredibly harmful, ableist stereotype. (there are articles explaining it much better than I ever could over at fwd)

    I am not saying that the author meant to imply all this, but it is a view that is far to wide spread.

    It’s great that Roger Ebert is happy. But if he was unhappy, that would not make his voice any less important.

    I mean, we don’t talk about politics only when we have good things to say about them (for example), why should anybody be expected to only talk about their lives if they are being positive?

  8. 8
    paul says:

    It is really wonderful to see him doing this well. And it’s only possible because he’s top-half-percent rich and has a wonderful, loving spouse and no kids at home. Anyone in this situation but not so situated would be dead already or wishing they were, no matter how personally graceful.

    Sorry, but health care reform is on my mind.