No one wants to live with pain. No one wants to live with agony. No one wants to live with limitations.
But sometimes, you have no better option.
Pain is the most underappreciated aspect of human life. It’s dreaded more than embraced. It’s feared more than loved. No one wakes up looking forward to it. No one goes to bed enjoying its company. It’s the houseguest you can’t kick out. It’s the annoying roommate who won’t leave you alone. It’s always there no matter what.
But pain is also a great teacher. You don’t notice it at first because of the blinding quadruple impact of despair, hopelessness, anger and frustration. Over time, however, you learn: patience for the slower pace of life; tolerance for the things you can no longer control; relief for all the love and support; and, most important of all, acceptance.
Acceptance. That’s the hardest one, isn’t it? Who wants to be ok with being less than who you really are?
But that’s a lie. You’re not any less than you were. In fact, you’re much more. You just don’t see it right away.
It’s true. When pain hits us, we’re not the same any more. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking depression, addiction or physical ailments, pain has a way of disrupting our lives so severely the loudness of our daily routine is suddenly muted. Our usual comforts becoming increasingly elusive, our darkest thoughts awakening us to the terror of our new reality. Pain stains our soul.
It doesn’t have to be that way, though. Yes, not all pain is crippling or permanent. Sometimes, it’s just a bad dream that eventually dissipates. But for those whose conditions are severely and incurably altered by pain, despite the inevitable worst of some days, there are ways to thrive, there are times of joy and ultimately, there is a sense of peace.
Roger Ebert was first diagnosed with cancer back in 1987. He beat it. Then, he was diagnosed again 15 years later. He beat it again. But cancer is a ferociously stubborn beast. It returned multiple times, most recently just a few days ago. It was this cancer that finally killed him at age 70.
But Roger Ebert isn’t dead. He can’t be. Like the many talents he followed throughout his 46-year career as a reviewer of film, he lives on in his work. From the moment he got “The Dream Beat” in 1967 to the moment he drew his last breath yesterday, he left behind an astonishing life of thought and feeling for the many thoughts and feelings of those very talents. He survives and thrives through the magic of technology.
After only seeing his first film, Who’s That Knocking At My Door?, he predicted great things for director Martin Scorsese who often didn’t let him or the film world down in the decades that followed. He was pretty much alone in enthusiastically praising 2001 and Apocalypse Now when most critics were trashing them during their initial releases. Both are considered classics today.
And thanks to his longtime TV partnership with fellow critic Gene Siskel (who died of complications from cancer himself in 1999), he helped transform the once snobby world of ivory tower movie criticism into a more accessible art form in its own right without once sacrificing passion or intelligence. The films they championed often became films we championed. They made it cool to be smart and opinionated even if your view wasn’t shared by anybody else.
In the last decade, Roger Ebert had to embrace all the changes wrought by pain. He had to accept the alteration of his speaking voice and over time, its complete absence. He had to accept dramatic weight loss. He had to accept a loss of balance. He had to accept a great deal of assistance from his remarkably loyal and compassionate wife of 20 years, Chaz. He had to accept a life of dependency. He had to accept a prosthetic jaw that did not flatter his face. He had to accept a life without solid foods. He had to accept limited physical movements.
He had to accept pain.
And he did. But the pain didn’t define him. It taught him: how to adapt and how to adjust without losing the passion he had for the movies. When Ebert couldn’t talk on TV and the radio anymore, he started a blog, joined Twitter and wrote numerous books including his memoirs. He didn’t just write about the cinema, he wrote about life, his life, the lives of others. He wrote about science and religion. He wrote memories. He wrote dreams. He wrote political views. He wrote everything he wanted to. And we responded.
And he never stopped going to the movies. Despite being voiceless, he couldn’t keep quiet about what he loved and what he loathed. His brain never stopped. Neither did his fingertips. The words, the thoughts, the feelings, the hopes, the concerns, the desire for excellence, it all grew stronger online, in those many books and in the pages of the Chicago Sun-Times, his longtime home.
My earliest memory of him is probably from 1981. My dad was obsessed with taping things off the TV and he often tuned into Sneak Previews on PBS usually just to capture clips of the latest releases. But he caught the opinions, too. There he was, this sweatered fat man with a bad haircut and ridiculous glasses having a conversation with a thin, bald guy about movies. Most often they agreed, sometimes they didn’t. But they cared. We did, too, through several incarnations including syndication.
I was far too young to understand or appreciate what they were saying, what they were doing back then. (I was only 6.) But by the end of 1990, I began to listen and I learned. For a decade. First, every Sunday afternoon, then every early Monday morning. It was like taking a weekly private study class with two eccentric professors. They introduced me to a world beyond Disney and The Muppets, beyond superhero movies, Star Wars and Spielberg. They taught me film and how to assess it. They taught me how to think for myself. They turned me into a man.
They demanded I seek out quality, savour it always and to spread the word so others could enjoy it, too. They urged me to avoid predictable fare or risk being bored and insulted. Challenging material was always more welcome than the same old thing.
They didn’t always praise what everybody praised. Siskel disliked Unforgiven and The Silence Of The Lambs. Ebert was horrified by A Clockwork Orange. They didn’t hate what everybody else hated. The Bodyguard, for instance. And they weren’t always persuasive. (Ebert liked Cop And A Half, for example.) But I always knew where they stood. Once I found my own voice and developed my own tastes, they mattered even more. Now we could argue. Now we could compare. They opened up the conversation and invited us all to join in.
14 years ago, I lost a hero named Gene. Yesterday, I lost another hero named Roger.
They were two great men who learned how to power through their considerable pain.
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Friday, April 5, 2013