Roger Ebert’s Predictable Death


Roger Ebert died last week. Given his long and serious illness, this could not have come as a shock to anyone and it certainly did not come as a surprise to him. He knew it was coming, likely sooner rather than later, and he wrote less than two years ago about his inevitable demise.

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. I am grateful for the gifts of intelligence, 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…

What I expect to happen is that my body will fail, my mind will cease to function and that will be that. My genes will not live on, because I have had no children. I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.

I went into the hospital in December and many people, my doctors included, had doubts that I would survive the ordeal (when one of my dearest friends asked the nurse over the phone whether she could wait to come up until the next day, she was told, “You’d better come tonight”). I was asked by many people afterward, when the news was good and I was on my way to a full recovery (so far), whether I had gained any great wisdom from it. Alas, I had no epiphanies other than seemingly banal thoughts along the lines of “carpe diem.” I wish I could have thought this deeply while going through it, but I didn’t. I was too busy being scared and just trying to stay alive to ponder the bigger picture.

But Ebert’s words here strike me as rather powerful. As I said when I gave the eulogy at my mother’s funeral, I have no idea what happens after we die. I’d like to think I’ll be reunited with lost loved ones, but I see no reason at all to believe that. The only immortality we can hope to have, I think, is living on in the thoughts and lives of the people we affected during our lives. And that seems like quite enough, don’t you think?

Comments

  1. says

    Ebert, like Hitchens, had a long time to anticipate his death. I don’t think that bumping up against Death unexpectedly in the night actually confers any profound revelations– for anyone. I think that having it step into your existence as a constant reminder trains your brain on it, and among the more gifted of us seems to stir up some useful and beautiful insights.

    That’s not to disparage your “bump,” Ed. I’m profoundly grateful that’s all it was. Just saying that I don’t think it’s a sign of anything wrong with you that it didn’t elicit any big existential screeds.

  2. says

    He is positively remembered by so many in Chicago. A number of my friends took is film class at U of C and to a person reported that he was wonderful teacher, kind to students and obviously passionate about film. I’d intended to take the class at some point, but never got around to it.

    I did have one personal encounter with him. Back in the mid 90s, my thhen girlfriend and I went to see a movie and afterward stopped at little bar to shoot pool. I was on a run, holding the table when I noticed that Ebert, his wife Chaz and another couple came into the place. They looked around for a couple of minutes, and then Roger came over to my table and put his quarters up. I played him, beat him. I’d asked if he wanted to play for a beer, but he declined. Afterward, he offered to buy me a beer. Classy guy.

  3. says

    Regarding insights leading up to death, a friend who did hospice work told me that people don’t generally have profound insights and that in his opinion, when people are dying, they tend to become more of what they were to begin with. I can’t vouch for that from an abundance of personal experience, but it makes sense, if we’re to believe that there is any such thing as character/personality.

  4. says

    I’m reminded of being on a medication many years ago that could not, under any circumstances, be accompanied by anything fermented–or I might have a stroke. Sure enough, I inadvertently ate something fermented, and woke up that night with the worst headache I’d ever had in my life, and my heart pounding away at twice its normal speed. Thanks to the ER I escaped a stroke–but my only big insight from that experience is that the fear of death, in its most visceral form, is what mostly goes through your mind when this sort of thing happens. It pretty much crowds everything else out.

  5. rabbitscribe says

    “And that seems like quite enough, don’t you think?

    Those grapes are probably sour anyway.

    “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my art. I want to achieve immortality through never dying.” ~ Woody Allen.

  6. lofgren says

    I agree with rabbitscribe. Humans tell ourselves that immortality must suck because of course we’ll never get to experience it. It always used to bug the hell out of me the way that the Highlander was all emo over his five centuries of life, complete immunity to disease, perpetual youth, and near-instant healing factor. (Especially since his great whine was that he could never have biological children, while he is depicted in the movie having adopted children. There are plenty of real live people who can’t have biological children who don’t get to live for 500 years in exchange.)

    That said, I also believe that immortality (or functional equivalents) is probably impossible. Biology breaks down, and mechanical solutions do not have the consistency of self that we would want for true immortality. (It really doesn’t do me much good if there is a computer walking around with my uploaded personality. It may “live” forever, but I’m still going to die when my brain stops working.) So if you need to tell yourself that immortality would suck in order to make dying more acceptable, go on ahead.

  7. Michael Heath says

    Roger Ebert writes:

    I am comforted by Richard Dawkins’ theory of memes. Those are mental units: thoughts, ideas, gestures, notions, songs, beliefs, rhymes, ideals, teachings, sayings, phrases, clichés that move from mind to mind as genes move from body to body. After a lifetime of writing, teaching, broadcasting and telling too many jokes, I will leave behind more memes than many. They will all also eventually die, but so it goes.[emphasized by M. Heath]

    I disagree with what I bold above. Attributes of memes influenced by Ebert create a context that influences both the changes to those memes and the creation of new memes. So Ebert will influence the subsequent generations of memes, and on and on and on . . .; and hopefully, long after Mr. Ebert is forgotten. All because the context within which memes are influenced and transmitted has been affected by what Ebert contributed. In Mr. Ebert’s case, the marginal change in future memes will benefit humanity given Mr. Ebert’s life.

  8. dingojack says

    In a few years it’ll look like this. Ah America, the land of human progress, welcome to the 18th century!
    Dingo

  9. Trevor says

    I don’t think it’s reasonable to say that he knew he was likely going to die soon. His cancer was in remission, and other than that he had no serious health issues as far as I know. Of course he knew that his cancer could come back at any time and kill him, but it could also have stayed in remission and he could have lived for many more years. In fact he said in the very article you quote, “I don’t expect to die anytime soon.”

    Anyhow Here’s an awesome video of Ebert burning some condescending racist asshole

    In any case, he was a great person, and a great critic.

  10. Alverant says

    I have no idea what happens after we die. I’d like to think I’ll be reunited with lost loved ones, but I see no reason at all to believe that.

    It’s that fear that keeps me up some nights. Some nights I can accept nonexistance, other nights I curl up in a fetal position out of terror. I want there to be something after death. 80 years isn’t enough IMHO. But I have no logical reason to convince myself there is. If life would end when I was ready for it to end, it would be a different story. And if I have to make up some kind of afterlife to help me fall asleep at night, that’s OK (as long as I don’t try to force my ideas onto others of course). All and all, I would like Death to be like the one Terry Prachett’s Discworld series.

    OTOH watching the Milky Way collide with Andromeda or seeing Canis Major XY go hypernova first hand would be good too.

  11. Stacy says

    D.C. Sessions, you beat me to it. That Onion piece brought tears to my eyes. I bet Ebert would have loved it.

  12. Nick Gotts (formerly KG) says

    I have no idea what happens after we die. – Ed Brayton

    Really? Like you have no idea whether someone can be killed by casting a spell on them? Like you have no idea whether there are fairies at the bottom of the garden? An afterlife is no more plausible than witchcraft or the wee folk; and belief in the possibility is about the most obvious case of wishful thinking you could find. To the one who dies, nothing happens afterwards.

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