Life Itself (July 12, 2014)

On May 2, 2009, legendary writer and film critic Roger Ebert published the essay, “Go Gentle Into That Good Night” on his blog, Roger’s Journal. Almost four years later, the man of letters was dead at the age of 70, finally succumbing to a long bout with thyroid cancer. Ebert’s post is elegant, beautiful and heartbreaking in so many ways, invested with extra pathos given his sustained and painful illness. I don’t know where he found the strength.


The opening has stayed with me for years:

“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. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting. My lifetime’s memories are what I have brought home from the trip. I will require them for eternity no more than that little souvenir of the Eiffel Tower I brought home from Paris.”

I’m an atheist who struggles with her godlessness, so much that I’ve rarely mentioned it in print. I try not to talk about it either, not only because there’s good sense in the axiom that one should avoid discussions of politics and religion in mixed company. Although I believe there’s a certain rhythm and harmony to the universe, I can’t get down with any particular faith’s explanation of who’s in charge. This is a tough position to take in a family mixed with devout Lutherans, Catholics and Muslims.

I am a scientist and logician. Math and tested research. It’s the latter principle that reinforces my belief. Eight years of parochial skill, learning the Catechism and memorizing Bible verses in lieu of world geography. I’ve given it a lot of thought and study. But I don’t know how to talk about it, especially when you throw in the almost perverse jealousy experienced when I encounter a true person of faith. How much more serene and relaxed their worldview.

And so Ebert’s gentle, profound passage on death, his conviction that there is nothing more than this life, is inspirational. My atheism is not the confrontational type in the style of skeptic legends Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins. I don’t begrudge another human being what works for them, as long as they display the same courtesy. Yet the softer voices of atheism are often drowned by those of the white alpha males in the room. Ebert’s is a lovely contribution, and a model for articulating my own spirituality.

Last weekend, a friend and I went to the theater to see Life Itself, the new documentary about Roger Ebert’s birth, career and death from filmmaker Steve James. A must-see for any loyal fan certainly, but the movie is important for so many reasons. It’s no deification of the brilliant icon. We learn of Roger’s outsized ego, his alcoholism, the womanizing before settling down at the age of 50 with soulmate Chaz. Somehow, these imperfections set in relief the humanity that infused every word written over a 45-year career.

What the film makes clear, what Ebert’s body of work certifies, is that he soaked in everything he could from his time on Earth, believing as he did, that you only get one shot. He ate, drank, loved and fought with frenemy Gene Siskel with gusto. He wrote about so much more than the art of filmmaking. Chicago architecture, screenplays, social commentary – Ebert’s career defied the pigeonhole.

And so the title of the movie about the man who loved movies is perfection. Roger Ebert’s fervor for experience both was and is contagious. Whenever the symptoms of the autoimmune disease with which I struggle unleash a pity party of one, an excuse parade for why I can’t, I recall that my hero was missing half his face and two days away from the grave when he published his final essay, “A Leave of Presence.” It’s better than anything I’ve ever written, perhaps better than anything I’ll ever write. But who knows? I’ll keep trying, as I’ll continue searching for explanations to the confounding. Because I believe, as Roger Ebert did, that’s life itself.

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