It wasn’t until Roger Ebert began to wrangle the wide world of the internet — the way I had with a LiveJournal at fourteen — that we walked on the same turf. The same internet rendered At the Movies irrelevant to my interests — I had Rotten Tomatoes as early as eighth grade — and I knew of Ebert mostly in periphery, sharing the same world as my beloved Jay Sherman on The Critic. I saw my first Woody Allen movie at the 3rd Overlooked Film Festival, skipping chemistry to huddle with my band of faux-rebels in the back rows of the Virginia, enchanted. I kept the program and read every review, even the ones for movies I still haven’t seen.
But it wasn’t until Roger Ebert fractured his hip in spring 2008, an injury that forced him to miss Ebertfest, that he started a blog; with that outlet, a much larger audience was introduced to Roger as a friendly intellect, a literary heart. He joined Twitter not long after, and launched the Ebert Club, a low-rent private blog and email newsletter for which I pity-paid a $4.99 yearly subscription fee. In his blog, Roger wrote about news stories that charmed him, about his weekly eye-roller entries in the New Yorker cartoon caption contest, and, of course, about life itself, and the movies — often both at the same time — and I followed every word. “Roger Ebert loved it!” my now-husband (truthfully) emailed to me, convincing me to watch the filthy The Devil in Miss Jones. “My boy Rog Ebert,” I once said on Gchat, “is making a point on Twitter that Jesus never mentioned the existence of an antichrist.”
He also wrote,with frankness about his cancer. About his body changing, his face morphing, his voice disappearing. “I got a jolt from the full-page photograph of my jaw drooping. Not a lovely sight,” he wrote in 2010 after studying himself on the cover of Esquire. “But then I am not a lovely sight, and in a moment I thought, well, what the hell. It’s just as well it’s out there. That’s how I look, after all.”
I pulled up my open Twitter tab last Thursday, returning to my desk after a meeting, and read a tweet about Roger Ebert’s death. Seconds later, I felt buoyed by hope that his Wikipedia page didn’t list a death date. And then, and then — retweeted over 9,000 times, the Sun-Times announcement, “with a heavy heart.” Arrived in my inbox on April 2, 2013: The #162 Ebert Club Newsletter. On April 6, 2013: Funeral services for Roger Ebert.
On April 2, Ebert published the blog post “A Leave of Presence.” Now I read it and look for clues. I suspect he knew he was dying. Look at the author photo of him at the top, jaw intact, leaning on red velvet movie theater seats. “Thank you,” the post begins and also ends. Then again, there are details of future plans — the joy of choosing the movies he wishes to review, confirmation of the documentary about his life, the launch of a Kickstarter campaign. In a few weeks, the fifteenth year of Ebertfest in Urbana-Champaign, “[his] alma mater and home town.” I pick apart the sentences as if it’ll make any difference if he knew or didn’t know he would be dead within two days. “What in the world is a leave of presence? It means I am not going away,” he wrote.
Roger Ebert, our hometown boy, that devoted observer, beloved husband and grandfather, lived a well-examined life and died a well-examined death. He lost his voice, but in turn, he’d found the internet, and that is where so many met him, and where so many now mourn him. Lucky for us who are still here, we can click through the archives as I do now. I search for prescience in his last words, turning them over like river rocks. I am not going away. Enough with reblogging images of Siskel saving him a seat in heaven. The man didn’t believe in heaven. He believed that this life was it, and that this life was enough. I want him to have seen his own death coming, light as the well-worn plot of a predictable movie — the fruit cart overturning, the hero in freeze-frame. The killer turning out to be that old, familiar friend.
Photo from Roger Ebert’s essay, “A Leave of Presense.”