A young Roger Ebert in the Sun Times features department where we sat "desk to desk."
Tough year, 2013. For me.
It was the year my friends and I really talked like old folks when we met or phoned. First, the cataloging of new aches, pains and pills. Then, the obits.
We'd done the obits for a while, actually, my friends and I. Usually lamenting the deaths of the icons of our youth -- actors, musicians, writers we had turned to for solace and wisdom. I think it may be particularly difficult for people of my generation to deal with these losses. All young people believe they're invincible, but we were a particularly self-confident lot, us "60s" kids.
Hipper-than-thou, we were, the kids at the vanguard of the political and social scenes for which the 60s and 70s are remembered. I have a theory that the Karl Roves, Rush Limbaughs and other architects of the Tea Party and other arch-conservative movements were "squares" who couldn't get laid back then -- all that raw, raving anger can't be just about politics.
Only the wounded strike out with such poisonous passion. And we kinda had it comin'. An insufferable lot we could be, so absolutely sure we had a lock on the ills of society's ills and how to cure them.
We were right, though, quite often. And all that moxie did change things -- some of us died young to make sure. But those of us who lived on felt, even more than all young people before and since I think, that we were indestructible. And would not, as The Who suggested, die before we got old. Or grow old, for that matter.
This year, I knew I was old. And among the lamented were, for the first time, close friends who'd shared my journey.
The first and most difficult for me, still, to release, was Roger Ebert, my old Sun Times colleague and biggest "fan"who believed in my talent more than anyone, always.
I'm not sure he ever forgave me for walking away from journalism back in the 80s, though it was something he said that gave me the courage to do it. He suggested, over one of our long and sometimes almost entirely liquid lunches, that reporters should quit after five years, to save their souls.
We saw too much, had too much access to too many things -- I totally knew what he meant. As a features reporter I was often on the red carpet. And leapt into the limo with the band after the show for the mad dash to the after party. Or to the lonely hotel rooms, where they sat up 'til the wee hours, trying to make sense of the blurry, sparkly but finally rather empty world stardom actually was.
Everything begins to feel empty, over time. But Roger felt that my youthful laughter, as I talked on the phone to the boys in those bands, meant that I would survive it all -- he wrote me the most beautiful email I've ever received about those days. And the solace he found in that laughter and the affectionate lilt in my voice.
Three years ago, when I almost died before him, I received emails, almost daily, from him. He had almost died himself, of course. And said he knew how it felt when "your body is attacking itself." And helped me endure it.
I lived for those daily Ebert emails. Literally. They prepared me for the indignities of grave illness. And gave me the courage to fight my way back.
The day he died, I felt it before I knew it. I had a lunch engagement with a friend, but...I couldn't get dressed for it. I couldn't think straight. Find things.
I'd had a strange dream, too, about leaping from great heights and soaring as if I were hang gliding. I would jump... and soar. Jump... and soar.
He was flying away, Roger, I know now. But that day, I didn't know until I got home and saw the headline on my home page.
I said only, very calmly as I recall, "He's gone." And deleted the email I'd been meaning to send him that day.
I scan my emails for his every day, still -- it's a reflex action. And then I remember. And my heart hurts.
The second death that stunned me was a woman friend I'd corresponded with for decades, too. Her nickname was Lady Barbara. She was an herbalist, whose magic concoctions could cure everything but the cancer that ate its way through the belly she used to dance with--she could really shake that thang after she learned how. She taught others to undulate like that as well.
And then one day big holes began to open up on it--I've never seen or heard of anything so gruesome. Her body attacked her, too. From the inside out. Surgeons would try to reconnect her innards. But her belly would spit the staples out through those gaping, oozing holes--excruciatingly painful.
Roger shared a horror story with her, too, bless him. And at the very end, she wrote about the process of dying with such a clear, cool head that it was easy for her friends to forget what we were reading--a detailed account of how the body shuts down.
The last email was from her daughter, telling us that there would be no more.
So 2013, for me, was a year of leave taking. There will be more of that, much more, from now on. Roger and Barbara prepared me well. But I'd rather have them back.
But...goodbye, my Lady. Good bye, dear Roger. Goodbye, 2013. Damn you.
Photo received from Roger Ebert before his death, with his permission for use.