Roger Ebert and Me: In Loving Memory

I learned that Roger had passed in an email from my mother, read to me by Annabel while on one of our frequent road trips. It took a long while to sink in. It happens from time to time that there are erroneous reports. But when I read the blog post by his lovely wife, Chaz, I knew it was true:

"I am devastated by the loss of my love, Roger -- my husband, my friend, my confidante and oh-so-brilliant partner of over 20 years. He fought a courageous fight. I've lost the love of my life and the world has lost a visionary and a creative and generous spirit who touched so many people all over the world. We had a lovely, lovely life together, more beautiful and epic than a movie. It had its highs and the lows, but was always experienced with good humor, grace and a deep abiding love for each other.

"Roger was a beloved husband, stepfather to Sonia and Jay, and grandfather to Raven, Emil, Mark and Joseph. Just yesterday he was saying how his grandchildren were "the best things in my life." 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."

We are touched by all the kindness and the outpouring of love we've received. And I want to echo what Roger said in his last blog, thank you for going on this journey with us."

As Roger mentions in the video above, I first met him at the Hawai'i International Film Festival in 2002. My first feature, Charlotte Sometimes, included cast and crew with Hawai'i roots (I went to high school and middle school there), so it was a special occasion even before we encountered Roger at a luncheon that kicked off the festival. We asked him if he would be kind enough to attend one of our screenings. He said he would need to check his schedule.

Roger-Ebert-vertical-sm.jpgWe ran into him again that evening at the opening night party. He said he had checked his schedule and that he would be attending the first of our 3 screenings. We let out a loud cheer and he immediately ducked his head below his shoulders. "Please, not so loud," he said. "There are a dozen other filmmakers here who asked me the same question."

We had a feeling that Roger liked the film based on the questions he asked during the Q and A. The audience was filled with friends and calabash family, and it was announced that we were all going out to eat afterwards. To our delight, Roger and Chaz joined us. This was the first time that I got to know Chaz. What a glowing, loving, charming person she is and was. Years later, Chaz and I would become quite close as Roger's health deteriorated, as we worried and fretted together in hospitals or at their Chicago home. But these were the wondrous years, times she and I both long for now. Let me stay with them a little longer.

At the dinner following the screening, it was a shock to see my high school friends pinging Roger with questions about reviews he'd written, his opinion of their favorite movies, recent movies, etc. We knew that in the morning, it was likely a review of Charlotte Sometimes would be published in the Chicago Sun Times. This was the early days of the Internet. In order to read the review, we had to find a Kinkos, and pay by the hour to go online. Since we were in Hawai'i, it wasn't hard to stay up. The review appeared at about 1 am. I knew that some good things would happen as a result of meeting Roger. I didn't know that the best of them would have little to do with film.

The video above was shot at Roger's film festival in March of 2003, about 4 months later. EbertFest, known then as "The Overlooked Film Festival," is an annual pilgrimage for film lovers around the nation and around the world. We really had no idea what an amazing community we'd been invited to join. Somewhere, I have photos from the festival with Roger and Chaz. When I find them I will post them. Suddenly, images from the past are a treasure. You know how it is.

 

Each spring since 2003 I've felt a calling from Champaign/Urbana to be among a core group of, well, hundreds if not thousands of people, who are bound to one another by a love of movies, but more and more, I realized, as the years went by, a love of Roger and Chaz. Or really, to be more exact, we were bound by THEIR love of US. One of Roger's greatest pleasures in life was introducing a friend to another friend, and launching a new friendship in the process. I saw Roger and Chaz do this ver and over again at EbertFest.

In 2004, I happened to be in Chicago when the festival was taking place as it does each April (I'll be there in 9 days for the 5th time, shockingly without Roger). On a whim, I jumped in a car with two new friends, John Park and Kristina Ko, and drove 2 hours south to join the fun. A member of the Ebert extended family recognized me as we were about to buy tickets to a show that was sold out but had a wait list. He instantly arranged guest passes for us. Seats were harder to come by, and we found ourselves sitting way up in the balcony, about as high as you could go.

When Roger came out to introduce the film, just as you see him do above, he said, "I understand that Eric Byler is in the audience, remember Eric Byler, director of Charlotte Sometimes?"  People did, I guess, because they started to clap. Roger put his hand over his brow to block the stage light and look for me. I jumped to my feet and yelled, "I'm in the balcony, Roger!"

It was during my second time around at EbertFest that I realized I was part of the Ebert extended family. From that point on, I made sure to let them know when I was in Chicago. I was invited to Roger's Walk of Fame induction, which was easy to attend as I was still living LA then. 

In February of 2008, I found myself in Houston, TX documenting, and volunteering for, Barack Obama's run for the presidency. By this time, Roger's bout with cancer had taken a toll. He'd lost his ability to speak because the cancer had taken a good part of his lower jaw. When I'd visited with him in Chicago prior to this, I understood his loss of speech to be a temporary inconvenience. This was Roger. Nothing could stop Roger, everyone knew that. Now, however, Roger and I crossed paths at one of the nation's leading cancer centers, where he was recovering from an operation that had nearly killed him. I knew as soon as I saw Chaz that Roger's health issues were more serious than I had wanted to believe.

I remember sitting with Roger in the hospital. He was very weak. He'd been battling with Chaz on his physical therapy, I can't remember exactly what it was that the doctors were telling him to do. Take walks, probably. Chaz was making him do it. Sometimes he was grumpy about it, which hurt Chaz a little, but she loved him so much that nothing on earth, not even a grumpy note from Roger, would stop her from taking care of him. I very humbly suggested to Roger that perhaps it wasn't worth the risk to continue with these surgeries. Chaz hadn't said as much, but I had gathered she felt the same way. He wrote, "I don't want to think I'll never have another cup of coffee." As it turned out, he didn't. But his life after Houston was as rich and full as it had ever been before, or, almost so. 

One of the things I remember most and love most about Roger was his ability to tell a story in front of a crowd. On television there was never time for an extended story. But if I was ever fortunate enough to be around Roger when some of his old friends were also in attendance, there would invariably come a time when people would begin to demand a story. They'd practically pound the table for one. Roger was always happy to oblige. He had a way of telling them so vividly, with that deep, resounding voice of his. He could sound as if he was at your table even if you were 20 tables away. He made us feel as if we were at the Cannes Film Festival in 1968 with him and Sophia Loren. We could see everything he saw. And then the punch line would come (often there were several) and the room would just explode. Roger really loved telling stories. After his first bout with cancer, he couldn't do it in all the same ways he had before. But he never truly lost his voice. Thankfully, the Internet came along just in time.

At the 2011 EbertFest, I was able to introduce Roger and Chaz to Annabel Park. They were both incredibly kind to her. Roger was especially excited to introduce Annabel to actress Tilda Swinton. I last saw Roger and Chaz 13 months ago in Chicago. By this time he'd become a Twitter Wizard. His website, RogerEbert.com, had developed a world-wide following. He was astonishingly prolific, writing more reviews than there were days in the year (all with his two-finger typing style), and leaving his imprint on politics and culture with essays and brilliant quips about current events.

Of all the many gifts Chaz Ebert has given to me — she's bought me lunch several times, especially in the later years when Roger needed to rest and couldn't join us, and she's wrapped her arms around me literally and figuratively many times — I'm most grateful for these two lines she wrote in the note quoted above:

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.

Roger's final blog contained some bad news — there was cancer now in his hip — but it was clearly written with such courage and such hope. He was not afraid of death, and certainly did not see it coming as soon as it did. I count this as a blessing. Even more so, I am comforted, even joyful, to think that in his last days Roger know how much he was loved. Chaz says he was "radiating satisfaction" thanks to all the wonderful members of the ever-growing Ebert extended family who took the time to wish him well, and thank him, in the comment section below that last blog. I am so, so, glad that Roger was as happy as he was when he died. And, I'm glad that Chaz is a poet like her husband. She was able to share this detail with us despite her grief, and make our grief that much easier to bear. 

As I scrolled through the hundreds (now thousands) of comments, I thought of Roger reading them, and I marveled at all the lives he had touched. This magical thing that Roger and Chaz did... bringing folks together, making infectious their love of people and their love of life, and yes, making infectious their love of cinema ... they didn't just do that when I happened to be around. They did it every day of their lives together for more than 20 years, in person and on the web. This outpouring of love and admiration — some from people who were fortunate enough to know them personally, much of it from those who knew Roger only through his work — is just one more testament to the wonderful man he was, and the wonderful couple that he and Chaz were together. How perfect, I thought, that all of the love that Roger showed to humanity came swarming back upon him just in the nick of time. The wave of comments had a hint of a good-bye and a hint of a "job well done," but most of all, I'm sure Roger sensed as he devoured them, they were filled with the admiration and love he so uniquely deserved.

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