Roger Ebert ,the great film critic, has died. As he battled with cancer and allowed his face to be seen and known, he went from a good man to a great man. So much like Steve Jobs and Christopher Reeves, Roger heroically allowed his illness and decline to become part of his public persona. Years ago, dying was to be hidden. But with ground-breaking books like Elizabeth Kubler Ross‘ On Death And Dying and Ernest Becker‘s Pulitzer Prize Winning, The Denial of Death; a new awareness came upon the world.
As Mr. Ebert said in his delightful and winning book, Life Itself: A Memoir, “I know it (death) 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.”
In his memoir, Ebert recalls his relationship with Paul Cox, an Australian director.
“In 1988 he (Paul Cox) made a documentary named “Vincent: The Life and Death of Vincent van Gogh.” Paul wrote me that in his Arles days, van Gogh called himself “a simple worshiper of the external Buddha.” Paul told me that in those days, Vincent wrote:
‘Looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn’t the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France?
Just as we take a train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star. We cannot get to a star while we are alive any more than we can take the train when we are dead. So to me it seems possible that cholera, tuberculosis and cancer are the celestial means of locomotion. Just as steamboats, buses and railways are the terrestrial means.
To die quietly of old age would be to go there on foot.'”
In his brilliant book, Iron John, now twenty-two years old, poet Robert Bly talks about the cycles of life. He calls the period of life that Roger Ebert just went through as the”black” period. The interesting aspect of the black period is not that it is about death only, but rather swallowing the shadow of your former self: all the ego and engagement and wrath of early life and then facing death with sagelike veracity. In the black period, one becomes wise and, according to Bly, often times, extremely funny.
And so we were all able to see the marvelous last years of Ebert’s noble life as he walked on foot, having swallowed the shadow, no longer obscuring his destination to the stars.
May this great man reach heaven soon.