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Roger Ebert's Life Itself : A Presence Profoundly Felt, Even After His 'Leave of Presence'

07/10/2014 01:01 pm ET | Updated Sep 09, 2014

In the last four years of his life, Roger Ebert did not have a vocal voice: extensive operations performed to remove and stave off cancer that began in his thyroid had deprived him of his ability to speak, eat, and drink. And yet, Ebert managed to be engagingly communicative as evidenced in his blog entries and in the recently-released documentary Life Itself - which aptly and poignantly draws on his 2011 memoir of the same title.

In that memoir, Ebert reviewed and critiqued many aspects of his life. While all 55 chapters are 4-star reads, the final nine offer moving evidence that, for a man who could not speak, he had restorative observations to make and therapeutic reflections to share.

Radioactive Man Loses His Jaw and His Mind

The chapter titled "Good News and Bad News" opens with a few lines of good news which are followed by pages of bad news: To remove cancer and check its possible spread, there's thyroid surgery followed by a shot-glass of radioactive iodine -- swallowed in isolation so that all his clothing and his old laptop could be "mothballed for radioactivity."

A new cancer materialized in his jawbone -- an insidious holdover from a salivary gland tumor. More surgeries, more complications, a tracheostomy, more bone grafts.

Ebert revealed that Web "news" stories persuaded him to resist doctors' recommendations in favor of a possible miracle through neutron radiation.

"The Internet is said to be responsible for helping patients take control of their own diseases. Few movies are ever made about sick people courageously taking doctors' advice. No, they get bright ideas Online. I believe my infatuation with neutron radiation led directly to the failure of all three of my facial surgeries, the loss of my jaw, loss of the ability to eat, drink, and speak, and the surgical damage to my right shoulder and back as my poor body was plundered for still more reconstructive transplants. Today I look like an exhibit in the Texas Chainsaw Museum."

To deal with the aftermath of surgeries, he became addicted to pain medications. He wrote of the initial and then fleeting euphoria, the all-too-brief calm, followed by uneasiness and pronounced anxiety. He learned about addiction, "the agonies of withdrawal," and recounted "startlingly vivid hallucinations."

Preceding those confessions are tributes to doctors: Notably a general practitioner who discussed Ebert's conditions with him "thoroughly and honestly."

Ebert, the consummate communicator, explained the comforting value of truth: "If I'm going to die, I'd rather know.

"I've had a conviction of invulnerability through all of my illnesses, never mind how misplaced it may have turned out to be. I don't have a lot of fear. Like many people, I fear pain more than death. I've had doctors I trust, and if I should die during surgery it will be no more an event than falling asleep. Now I know something I didn't know before, which is that after my surgeries failed, I could live a perfectly happy life."

Remembrance of Tastes and Talks Past

The chapter titled "Nil by Mouth" explains that efforts to restore "an acceptable appearance" involved the rebuilding of Ebert's face with bone and flesh transplants from his fibulas and thighs. The extraordinary microsurgery required to reattach blood vessels did not prevail. The neutron radiation he had insisted on had compromised the restructuring efforts: the transplanted tissues could not hold, would die, and had to be removed. Then catastrophic bleeding of a carotid artery sealed his facial fate.

So as not to stress sutured areas, he spent prolonged periods on his back. Muscular degeneration followed; he had to be winched out of bed in a sling.

Without the ability to eat or drink, his dreams of food and beverages became more vivid. There's the feel and taste of a root beer in a heavy, iced, glass mug. There are "sharp memories of the taste and texture of cheap candy." Ebert concluded that in losing his ability to taste, he gained back memories of tastes; replacing what was lost with what could be remembered with fondness.

What was lost, for the duration, were meals in the sense that they provided occasions for conversation, jokes, gossip, arguments, "recreational talking" - community. He missed the dining, not the food. He missed the society (lower case). "Formica eateries are the lifeblood of a city."

The Art and Science of Speechless Communication

In "Musing My Mind," Ebert noted how the blind and the deaf may compensate by heightening other senses. For him, however, the efforts to attach "spare parts" could not resurrect his speech. He had to resort to notepads, and "pidgin sign language, combining waving, pointing, shrugging, slapping my forehead, tracing letters on my palm, mime, charades, and more uses of 'thumbs up' and 'thumbs down' than I ever dreamed of."

He described the mechanism that allowed him to "speak" from the text he typed into a laptop. That process, along with the bottled-up thoughts that he couldn't get out in a timely exchange, made him all the more cognizant of "the words ordinary people waste" - what his TV partner Gene Siskel called "lip flap."

Ebert revealed that, for solace and consolation, he returned again and again to a Cormac McCarthy novel to savor a desperate man's sad life. Ebert explained, "I had no use for happy characters. What did they know?"

No "Resurfacing" of His "Storage Unit"

In "Putting a New Face on Things," Ebert mulled news of face transplants and the miraculous re-connecting of blood supplies. He was not tempted. He wrote that such a masking would be "an act of disloyalty" to his own face, where his eyes and brain were still in residence.

Remembrances of Awkwardness and Tenderness

There's warmth and charm in Ebert's recollections of his high-school reunions. Most of us can relate to "unfinished romantic business in the air" at a 10th reunion, with its "twinges of old jealousies and heartbreaks." At his 50th (Summer of 2010), there are recollections of fondnesses and "tender solemnities" that "need only a nudge to awaken."

Life is over when you stop living it

That's the lesson Ebert credits learning from Studs Terkel, Chicago radio personality and the consummate recorder of personal histories of those who were not standard historical figures. Through oral histories collected in his well-received and critically-acclaimed books, Terkel shared the lives of those who did not have a voice. Perhaps those profiles and Terkel's sensibilities became all the more meaningful to Ebert as he came to terms with his need to voice his thoughts entirely through writing.

No Cover-Up for a Cover Story

The chapter titled "My Last Words" does not deliver the closing words of the memoir. The chapter does explain how the photo of Ebert's reconfigured face became public in 2010. In the documentary, the drooping lopsided jaw seems to be set in a smile that defies disfigurement. It's a kind, endearing face.

Down-to-Earth Cosmic Thoughts

In "How I Believe in God," Ebert mused about infinity; sin; personal principles as opposed to rules, regulations, and dictates; beliefs as opposed to truths; prayer versus thoughts of wonder and awe; mega-churches; socio-political evangelism versus spiritualism; prosperity gospel; zealotry versus tolerance; "vertical prayer" as opposed to "horizontal prayer." All this offered in a single humanistic chapter that should be read (along with the concluding chapter) in philosophy and religion courses.

Joy to the World

In the final chapter -- "Go Gently" -- Ebert continued to mull the metaphysical while acknowledging the physical: "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."

It may strike some as curious that, at the very end, a critic would declare "kindness" to cover all of his political beliefs. Maybe political beliefs are an entirely separate category from aesthetic beliefs. While he did champion many films and filmmakers, Ebert was a critic. Still, all his reviews were meant to inform the movie-ticket-buying public -- and filmmakers as well - as to what worked and why some films didn't work. More than anything, perhaps, Ebert was an educator who wanted us to spend our box-office money so as to be moved, challenged, entranced. And he wanted filmmakers to earn and deserve an audience.

"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... I didn't always know this and am happy I lived long enough to find it out."

Was that a kind of repentance or a petition for absolution? a sermon? a bequest?

Maybe through his writings and his broadcast segments, Roger Ebert wanted us to spend our box-office money in ways that would make us happy for a few hours, and maybe a few hours after that.