Leave of Presence, Remembering Roger Ebert

ebert flowers

(photo: Steve Rhodes/Flickr)


There’s really no “remembering” for me to do about Roger Ebert. Unlike members of my family and friends, who, in the journalism corp or in the capacity of meeting him at film festivals at Telluride or the Conference of World Affairs,  had their own stories of meeting him in real life and about how he took the time to graciously share his experiences, advice or wit – mine was an imaginary relationship.  Some teens had Wayne Gretzky, or Madonna as imaginary alliances against the bullies of the world, or as characters they’d somehow implausibly meet and collaborate with; I had Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert.   I was barely out of life’s gate when Ebert won his Pulitzer Prize, but as a budding film geek kid, I sat with Ebert and Siskel  in the imaginary balcony on the TV Show “At The Movies”  and sometimes bitterly argued with them, lending a third thumb to the debate.  In real life I became a film reviewer in small student publications and I fantasized about how one day, Siskel and Ebert would (with glorious praise, of course!) review MY movie … the one I still to this day dream of making.

In later years I kept up on Ebert’s reviews and prolific  writing, paying  special attention to the marvelous writing he did following surgeries to battle thyroid and  salivary cancer.  Without remembering what his last meal or words were, these things ended long before he did when he lost the ability to eat, drink and speak in 2006.        Instead of giving up or hiding his disfigurement, he wrote cookbooks.  And even though he lacked a jaw and took nourishment through a tube, he enjoyed eating out with friends because it was the conversation he still cherished and said that  if he could have one more meal, it would be a crispy  steak burger from Steak ‘n Shake.

He wrote prose about remembering root-beer during his surgical recovery  which reminded me of my own father taking me for tiny mugs.

“For nights I would wake up already focused on that small but heavy glass mug with the ice sliding from it, and the first sip of root beer. I took that sip over and over. The ice slid down across my fingers again and again. But never again.”

Yesterday, a day after hearing about the return of  Ebert’s cancer and his planned ‘Leave of Presence’     I sat down to a meal with the family and my dad pushed a newspaper clipping across the table about this semi-retirement and featuring Ebert’s sweet,smiling face .    As I ate and looked at him on the newsprint, I was full of twisting and uncomfortable thoughts.   I said sadly, “I think it will go fast… he won’t get to do all the things he wanted.”    and yet the article reassured, hopefully, that he’d beaten cancer in the past and maybe he could again.   I even fantasized about finding his contact agent and writing him a heart felt letter of appreciation… would he hear me amidst all the other well wishers?

We all know someone in ill-health, or, knowingly or unknowingly more plans than lifespan. Maybe even ourselves.   I didn’t want to think of these things.   I didn’t want to face the discrepancy between what we think should happen and what we cannot control.

To be sure,  Roger Ebert still had big plans outlined in that last blog post where he explained what Leave of Presence meant;

“….I am not going away. My intent is to continue to write selected reviews but to leave the rest to a talented team of writers handpicked and greatly admired by me. What’s more, I’ll be able at last to do what I’ve always fantasized about doing: reviewing only the movies I want to review”

He promised to throw himself into the re-launch of  the new and improved Rogerebert.com, he planned to host ‘EBERTFEST’ film festival later this month at his Alma Mater University of Illinois in Urbana Campaign,  and aimed to work on reviving the “At The Movies” TV series, collaborate with Martin Scorsese on a bio-drama about his life,  he wrote,

“And gamers beware, I am even thinking about a movie version of a video game or mobile app. Once completed, you can engage me in debate on whether you think it is art.”    

It  was almost as if, pushing against the force of time and death, Ebert was asserting his purpose… affirming the things that sustained him through the hard times, because in the act of writing  he could comprehend and experience his own wholeness and life.   This identity and perspective is something all artists can understand. He told Esquire magazine in 2010,

When I am writing, my problems become invisible, and I am the same person I always was,  All is well. I am as I should be.” 

I think that our Ego-Self hides the tender mortality of our days from us… we never know when it will end or how much time we have left and yet sometimes part of us knows that hidden amongst the cushions of “big plans” that we have goodbyes and endings as surely as we had beginnings.   Part of us, no matter how much we fear letting go or the unknown, is ready.

In his last blog-post Ebert wrote,

“However you came to know me, I’m glad you did and thank you for being the best readers any film critic could ask for…”

signing out,

“So on this day of reflection I say again, thank you for going on this journey with me. I’ll see you at the movies.”

Just a few hours after reading the newspaper clipping I learned Ebert had stepped out of one world and into another on his way home.  Wife Chaz wrote,

He was happy and radiating satisfaction over the outpouring of responses to his blog about his 46th year as a film critic. But he was also getting tired of his fight with cancer, and said if this takes him, he has lived a great and full life.   We were getting ready to go home today for hospice care, when he looked at us, smiled, and passed away. No struggle, no pain, just a quiet, dignified transition

And so his “Leave of Presence” begins…  a life where we are without Ebert and yet left with his prodigious contributions and his powerful presence in the form of memes left for the ages.    In an essay for Salon.com he wrote of dying,

“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.”

“What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.”

It’s true. Ebert (as with Gene Siskel who passed before him in 1999)  will live on in “two thumbs up”  and in innumerable memories of people who knew him in real life or in the imagination of his fans, through the lens of celebrity.

Roger  wasn’t sure of an afterlife and believed that he would possibly cease to exist – that nothing “absolutely nothing” would happen.  The one thing he did believe, is something I can agree on whole-heartedly in the face of all the discomfort and fear over death and loss of control…

“I believe that if, at the end, 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.”

As Ebert did with the memory of root-beer, when eating and drinking had been taken away from him, we will remember again and again all the things our loved ones did, their writing, their contributions…  treasuring and reliving them again and again…

but never again.

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