The great writer Roger Ebert died yesterday, and the news made me cry. Not as soon as I read it but an hour later, when I was driving to the bookstore (hurrying, since I had only a short while before school pick-up) to buy a copy of Roger’s memoir, Life Itself, which I’d meant to read for some time.
The news of his death was sudden, coming just two days after he’d announced a “leave of presence” from his movie review column, two days after he’d written that he was “not going away.” Despite his poor health he’d sounded cheerful, as he always had since 2006, when cancer tore off part of his face and left him unable to speak or eat or drink.
Roger has long been one of my favorite writers. His writing, always beautiful, became more so after his physical voice was silenced. Most writers, even the great ones, have to labor over their words, but not Roger, not really. He knew he was an expert at it, and beautiful, clever sentences came easily to him. He said so, and it’s evident in his work.
In the last few years, when deciding whether or not to see a movie, I would go first to Roger’s review in the Chicago Sun-Times. Most of the time if Roger liked a movie, I would, too. But sometimes I’d read his reviews just for the pleasure of reading his writing.
Anyway, as I drove down the freeway yesterday, there were tears in my eyes. Partly for the way Roger had lived out his last painful years, bravely and gracefully, and partly because death always jars me, reminds me that although it often feels like there is a concrete wall between this reality and the next, billions of miles separating us, that barrier is, in fact, as thin as mist, as close as the clothes lying against my skin.
There is a flimsy curtain there, nothing more. And from time to time, the artists are the ones who draw it back.
Last year I read another memoir by another physically broken man, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby.
Bauby was the editor-in-chief of French Elle during the 1990’s. He lived in the most romantic city in the world. He held a prestigious job in a glamorous industry. He was moderately wealthy, reasonably well-known.
And those pretty adjectives blew away like ash in December of 1995, when Bauby suffered a massive stroke and was left with a rare condition called locked-in syndrome – a paralysis so complete that he was not even able to speak. He could only blink one eye. His intellect remained unimpaired.
Bauby worked out a system of communication – an assistant would recite letters of the French alphabet (in order of most frequent to least), and he would blink his left eye when she got to the correct letter. It took them about two minutes to write a single word. In this way, he delivered his memoir.
The beginning was rough. He wrote about the difficulty of realizing his new limitations:
They had to place a special cushion behind my head: it was wobbling about like the head of one of those African women upon removal of the stack of rings that has been stretching her neck for years. “You can handle the wheelchair,” said the occupational therapist, with a smile intended to make the remark sound like good news, whereas to my ears it had the ring of a life sentence…
As three orderlies laid me back down, I thought of movie gangsters struggling to fit the slain informer’s body into the trunk of their car.
The book is astonishingly good. Brief and transcendent.
Fifteen months after the accident that took his body, and three days after publication of the book that would make him famous, Bauby died. He did not live to see his work become an international bestseller. He never read the sensational reviews from critics around the world, who called his memoir “one of the great books of the century.”
Ah, but Bauby lives on. When I read his words I sit in his hospital room with him, seeing what he sees through his one good eye (his other one is sewn shut.) We roam the halls together, lost in thought. He is wheeled to the beach for some fresh air, and we both smell the French fries that he can no longer taste.
As Rick Bragg wrote in his prologue to All Over but the Shoutin’, “In these pages I will make the dead dance again with the living, not to get at any great truth, just a few little ones.” This is a great artist’s eternal gift and reward – they live on, through decades and centuries to come. They are never really in the past tense.
And when their stories (or music or pictures) pull back that thin curtain, make us feel that other, we get a shiver up our spines.
I started reading Roger’s memoir last night. It is exactly as marvelous as I’d hoped. We’re walking through his life together. He’s pointing out everything he saw that was sweet or terrible or funny or droll. He’s telling me a story, and it is very, very good.
And I am grateful.