That’s how it felt yesterday when I learned the news that Roger Ebert had died. I was shocked because just the day before I’d heard on the radio that he had decided to slow down—yeah, but not die. He told his fans and blog followers that with the return of cancer he would not be checking in as frequently, that he was going to spend his time and limited energy on other projects and Ebert Digital.
Now to be fair—I wasn’t a fan of many of his reviews, but I’d always appreciated his writing. And his courage.
He was able to pick himself up and write on! He lost his jaw, his voice, but never his ability to communicate. At his blog he wrote what has got to be the most loving appreciation of a marriage I’ve ever read—it actually made me jealous as I wonder if anyone would ever think of me as highly as he thought of his wife/partner Chaz.
"Wednesday, July 18, is the 20th anniversary of our marriage. How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? She fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone ....." Roger Loves Chaz READ IN ITS ENTIRETY
The tributes are pouring in and famous people are penning memories. All I have to offer is an anecdote, a humorous incident that involved Roger Ebert, Gene Siskel, and me! Really.
In 1998 Orphan Girl my memoir of a Chicago bag lady came out. I was busy doing publicity and the publisher had me doing a book signing at the American Booksellers Association trade show which was in Chicago that year. I was scheduled to come on right after Wally Lamb, author of the bestseller She’s Come Undone. It was a heady time waiting around in the green room before heading out to the signing booth. In the green room with me was Roger Ebert.
This was before all his health issues. He was a big man, a presence. I was nervous and stepped out. There was Gene Siskel. Sheesh!
He called me over. “Hey, can you do me a favor?” Me?
“Take this in to Roger will you?”
I’m trying to remember what he handed me. At the time I couldn’t help but think the situation was entirely surreal. Maybe it was a white bag or a note—I do remember when Roger opened it. YOUR PRESCRIPTION OF VIAGRA IS FILLED. Gene was snickering on the other side of the drapery walls.
Roger Ebert didn’t think it was funny.
That’s it. My pathetic Roger story. Gene Siskel would be dead within 6 months. On Wednesday, February 3, 1999, he announced he was taking a leave of absence but that he expected to be back by the fall, writing “I’m in a hurry to get well because I don't want Roger to get more screen time than I.” Siskel died less than 3 weeks later from complications of another surgery.
On April 2 Roger blogged: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.
He died 2 days later.
Regarding his death one day, he stated in 2010:
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.
Roger Ebert was Chicago. He was a journalist, a philosopher, a critic, a lover of film. Of all the comments that popped yesterday at the Chicago Tribune obituary, my favorite was this:
The balcony is closed.
It’s the end of an era.