Life Itself , the Film, the Book, and the Ebert I Knew

Movie critic Roger Ebert  photographs "The Darwin Awards" director Finn Taylor from the media line before the the screening o
Movie critic Roger Ebert photographs "The Darwin Awards" director Finn Taylor from the media line before the the screening of the film during the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, Wednesday, Jan. 25, 2006. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A very young Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun Times Features department

I saw Roger's movie last night.

I really didn't want to. In fact, I did not read Ebert's autobiography, Life Itself in its entirety when I received it from my old Sun Times friend and colleague.

I can't explain why.

It was a celebration of his life, but I felt it was also his way of saying goodbye, saying everything before he left us. And I didn't want to think about that -- still don't.

I had found my way back to him years after breaking ties with the life I'd known as a reporter. He had thrown me a little going away party back then, perturbed though he was about my choice to quit the Sun Times and move West with the man I loved.

He said he understood the need for a "lifestyle change." And at the time, I had no idea why he said it. Life Itself, in both book and movie form, explains that.

But I would not hear the story 'til we met again, via email, many years later. I cannot remember exactly how we got back in touch -- something I'd felt important enough to write to him about.

He was easy to reach. He answered almost anyone who wrote to him at his newspaper email address. He was always accessible that way -- a "man of the people."

And he responded quickly. Warmly. And with a remarkable story I wasn't expecting. A story that moved me to tears.

In short, he told me that hearing me laugh so happily every day at the Sun Times -- we sat "desk to desk" there -- had made him want to stop drinking. He wanted, he said, to feel as happy as I sounded.

I was a very young thing when I got that Sun Times gig. Very young chronologically and even younger in other ways -- a doted upon only child, as was he. But I had been sheltered from life. Roger had seized it, becoming a reporter at an astonishingly early age.

So by the time we met, he was older than me on many levels. King of the Features department, rushing in to type reviews at break neck speed. Reviews that would be poetic and letter-perfect -- no need for a second draft as a rule.

Arrogant as hell, yes. But also gregarious and generous. Liked black women -- we know that now. All women, really, but he seemed to like us a little more.

So I became a lunch/dinner companion -- not a lover. I think he was afraid to spoil the innocence he heard in my laughter. He did, however, take a deep and, as I discovered, lasting interest in me.

So when we began to exchange emails years later, we didn't talk about film or anything particularly lofty. We did talk about my writing, which he loved and promoted to the point that some other bloggers on one site complained that he was giving me an awful lot of free PR.

His response, when I told him about that, was, "That's true. Why wouldn't I? You're good."

Case closed.

I will remember him most, though, for the emails he sent me when I almost died before he did. I had developed Stevens Johnson Syndrome from the allopurinol I took for gout -- which I do not actually have, we know now.

He was alarmed by my blog posts about the pain and awful itching caused by the bright red rash that covers and eventually burns your body as if you'd been in an actual fire. So he checked in almost daily, once writing that my body was attacking itself. And that he knew what that was like.

We both seemed to be talking each other through that final leave-taking. But I recovered, with only a few small patches of scarring and discoloration.

Roger "lost" half of his face. When I saw him on the cover of Esquire, I was horrified. And then... prouder of him than I've been of almost anyone, ever. So while I was still covered with patches of itchy, oozy ugliness, I told myself that if Roger could handle that, surely I could handle my wounds.

I did.

And then, he died.

The day he died, I had a lunch meeting with another "old" friend. It took me a very long time to get out of the house and on my way. I was in an odd, unfocused fog.

And I'd had a dream about jumping off of this... huge flag pole sort of thing and flying. And then climbing back up, jumping off and flying like that, over and over again. It felt so wonderful that I resisted waking for a few minutes, wanting to soar some more.

Roger had flown away that very morning, too, apparently.

He had never met my daughter, as I'd wanted him to. I had never met Chaz, as he'd wanted me to. But somehow, that was all right. They both belonged to our "second lives."

Watching the film of his life, I was proud of the man on the screen and that second life he found. He was not quite the man I knew, but... I really did know, somehow, back then, that the man he would become was in there, getting ready for his "close up."

I am so grateful that I got to write about all that, and have him respond to it, publicly, before he died. I needed to tell him that as much as he had needed to tell me about my happy laughter.

Because the thing about Roger was... is... that if he cared about you, you knew you had somethin'. I took that with me wherever I went. I still take it wherever I go.

It made me do brave and sometimes foolish things. Both usually paid off. I owe him 'way too much to put into words.

The film is wonderful. The man was magnificent. And he is much missed by millions -- in his case, that is not an exaggeration. I think he still gets more fan mail than a lot of living celebs do.

Deserves every message.

You'll understand why.

Image credit: Photo given to author for use in publications by Roger Ebert