It doesn't matter now, because it's over. It was always going to feel too soon. He had been articulating his death in his strong voice for a long time, but it still hurt when it came, felt an unfairness.
I knew Roger Ebert a little bit. I have my small bag of stories, and I keep it more carefully than I do many things in my life. I don't think my stories are unusual - many, many people have them - and I know the same thing from mine that I know from reading other people's: he was generous. It's such a boring word for what it describes. Maybe because "generous" is sort of outwardly-focused - opens things up. It's a little vague. There was nothing diffuse in dealing with him, though. He was extremely focused, strongly himself, loyal to his thinking and his emotions. But he showed the best kind of confidence by being interested in and open to others.
I first knew him in 1999 because I sent him my zine. It was an impulsive move, born of killing myself for weeks to finish the second issue only to immediately have no clue what to do with it (a common feeling upon finishing a zine). Then I thought: Roger Ebert! He lives in Chicago too. He loves opera and movies and is an Anglophile, like me. He likes Doris Day and MFK Fisher, like me. I will send my work to him - he might like it. I followed my finger down a page of Who's Who until I found his business mailing address, and flung the zines in the mail with a note. Hail Mary.
I was at work three weeks later on a Monday, after a bad weekend spent dealing with the noise and stereo twiddlings of a crackhead neighbor. As I started miserably slashing through my inbox I was stopped by the sight of an email from Roger Ebert - Roger Ebert, just like any other person. His name shone calmly in the queue onscreen amidst waves of the usual frantic work horseshit.
When I think back I can immediately access the physical sensations that swamped me as I figured out what I was seeing. Adrenaline was shooting through every limb. I kept getting up and sitting back down, leaving my office and coming back, doing laps through the office cubicles with a huge involuntary smile on my face, letting out little yelps.
He wrote me that he did not have time to read 95% of the stuff that was mailed to him ("no human being would") but that his eye had fallen on my zines and started reading. "You are some writer," he told me. It turned out one of my favorite childhood books, Cheaper by the Dozen, had been a favorite of his too, and he offered to submit an essay I had written about it to a literary review on my behalf; "help it through the slush pile."
He offered clear, concrete help right off the bat. I still marvel at the effect of that, years later. He read my work, told me it was "of a high professional standard," and he offered to help me, right then. As it turns out the review did not accept the piece, but Roger's email came at the beginning of a period in my life in which I changed jobs and started to publish work, including, eventually, a (better, reworked) version of the Cheaper by the Dozen piece. As obvious as it seems now, it really is only in retrospect that I can see that every communication with him provided real fuel to my life.
In the ten years following, we sent the occasional email. In winter 2004, I messed up a good chance to talk to him in person. I had seen him a few times on the street in passing in earlier years, but this time I was at the theater on Lake Street where Chicago critics see their films, and when I stumbled into the elevator, sweaty and late for a screening, there he was. Standing with someone else, I forget whom (not Chaz, I think), and wrapped up in his winter coat. I just couldn't bring myself work through our outerwear to do the introducing.
That was because I was at the beginning of a period of bad health and quite bad physical mobility that I would acknowledge to no one, and I just could not - did not have the energy to - navigate explaining who I was, sweating with pain as I tried to stay upright, and finding the Right Seat among critics who all had their own spots already, all in the 90 seconds before the film was to start.
So I cravenly avoided his eyes. It pains me to remember that moment now. Now I think that no matter what I should have talked to him, or found him after the show, which I hoped would happen, but didn't. But then I was quite embarrassed by my inability to stand or walk well and didn't have the courage to push it. It's sad in so many ways to think about this: a dumb missed chance (forever), dumb vanity, the poignant fact that he, more than many, might have been able to understand my physical limitations. I did email him later and tell him I had seen him in the elevator. I lied, basically; I said I had been too unawake and uncaffeinated to realize who he was in time to say hi...blah blah. It was stupid. He wrote back a variation on No-way-that-was-you-say-hi-next-time-you-idiot.
In 2009 I got in touch with him again, pushed to do so by two things (three, if you include a smart friend). For one, I was exhilarated by the writing he was doing then, by how good his long-form autobiographical pieces were (such as those on drinking - at O'Rourke's - and on not drinking - at AA). I wanted to tell him how exciting I found his work, how it married intelligence and the humbling specifics of human experience in ways that I couldn't stop thinking about. I also wanted to tell him how much I admired how he handled his illness (and deadlines!), especially as a public figure. By then I knew how hard addressing long-term illness is. For myself, at least. How much it shapes your life, how hard it is to get better, how getting better can be as tricky as getting worse, how you have both no control and too much control over the little things that happen and what an exhausting drain every situation is. I knew that he had spent time at the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, which is where I had done rehab too. At that point I could have stood in the elevator and introduced myself to him - although at that point he couldn't have spoken back.
I got his new email address from a friend and sent him a letter. He wrote back quickly (he always did), said that he was enjoying writing more, "and, I daresay, better than ever," and told me that he liked my blog and had tweeted about an entry (props to Rog for using the word "fat" in a neutral, descriptive fashion, by the way). He did this again in subsequent years about a few things I sent him: once tweeting a piece I had written about Jeff Bridges (by then I understood Twitter better and what it meant to have Roger Ebert tweet about something you had written, holy cow) and last year Facebooking something I had written about Brideshead Revisited. Each time it happened there would be a brief silence after his email arrived before my Twitter and email notifications would start bonging loudly, my face would get red, I'd yell and jump around, my blog hits would (temporarily) spike to 8,000 a day, and I'd chant to friends over and over, "such a mensch...he's such a mensch!" I never got cool about this. I'd try to write thank-you letters that I hoped weren't too fulsome, or demanding in any way. Or as hyper as the jumping around.
I hope that it isn't too conceited that in describing his generosity I also relate experiences of good fortune in my life (doesn't seem to be any way around that). I want to show how smart and generous he was with me with the power he had. Ours was not a balanced relationship - he could give me more than I could give him - but he did it gorgeously. I always aware of who he was, but mostly I just wanted to show him what I had been thinking about. Share it.
Around ten months ago I decided I wanted to send him a present. From reading his work and keeping a brutal eye on what I could see of the facts of his health I was worried I'd be too late if I didn't do it sooner rather than later. I didn't want to miss him again like on Lake Street, miss him for good. I wanted to tell him directly how much his encouragement had meant to me over the years. I could clearly see the day coming - today, it turns out - when I would be one of thousands of people at their keyboards trying to describe what he meant to us. I didn't want him not to know.
I sent him a two-volume edition from the 1930s of the complete works of Saki in beautiful dust jackets, enjoying the process of packing it up just so, writing the right note, padding to the post office. I knew he'd like them. He sent back a spectacularly sweet thank-you letter that I feel too weepy to reproduce here. And then not long after wrote me back again to say: I want to give you some books too. What do you like?
That threw me. If he had been a better friend I would have risked a couple emails to wave him off, saying no, no, they are for you, you owe me nothing, ya dope. But because he was Roger Ebert I couldn't. I felt a little slapped in the face, to get his return offer so fast after my long-planned present. Or as if I had perhaps initiated an uncomfortable and never-ending ping-pong match of escalating gift-giving. Or, worriedly, as if I had maybe created an uncomfortable obligation on his end. But with a little time to think it over (thank God for time, sometimes) I realized: this is a man who will probably not live that much longer. It would be unkind to refuse him the pleasure of giving something. Let him do that. Let him put some books where he wants them.
So I learned yet another thing from him in the end of his life. I listed some favorite authors (he told me he liked my taste and I died another happy little death) and he sent me a few books that I now cherish. I don't really want to say what they are for some reason; he didn't send me Shakespeare Folios - just books that were perfect for me and provided a few new literary directions to sniff in. I have been reminded in the last few days how early I started learning new things from him; how much watching Siskel & Ebert with my family as a teenager influenced me. Decades of my life he informed. To be a critic, he wrote, was to be a teacher.
When he wrote me in 1999 to tell me the Cheaper by the Dozen piece had been turned down, he sent some advice in an email that I printed out and have had hanging on my wall for the almost fifteen years since then. I don't know if I've been able to follow it the way he did himself (very few people could), but it makes me feel special to have been the recipient of it and to have ever had his hilarious, wise eye on me at all:
Well, I guess acceptance the first time out would have been too much to expect. But you DO have a voice--yours--and if you plug away you will be a famous and beloved writer before you know it. (Human nature being what it is, you will have retained the words "famous and beloved" from the previous sentence, when of course "plug away" is the key content.)
very best,I love that he had my and every other writer's number in that last sentence. And that he signed his emails "RE" then, which (I told him) always reminded me of studio mogul "RF" Simpson in Singin' in the Rain.
I loved learning from him in recent years, loved his vulnerable but fiercely steady take on life and loss. I loved that he wasn't scared to care. I loved that his life prompted me to want to find always better-chosen words, showed me that it was worth telling him what he meant to me before it was too late, although I don't think I ever guessed how soon he'd go. I hope I can even try to be as dogged, as giving, as curious, as of my time and of my life as he was of his - to contribute, as he said, "joy to the world . . . no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try."
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