Jeff and I learned about Roger Ebert's death last Thursday about an hour after everybody else did. We had spent most of the day away from our computers and were enjoying one of central Illinois' first truly springlike afternoons, reprising our role as The Couple That Walks Around St. Joe Holding Hands.
Jeff found out first. We were sitting in the living room and getting set to watch Justified when he gasped. "Roger Ebert died," he said, looking up from his iPad sadly. Oh no. Instinctively my arms and legs bent in toward the center of my body--sort of a seated fetal position--as sadness swept over me.
My Facebook and Twitter notifications started erupting with "you're the first person I thought of when I heard" posts, and I responded to them for a few hours. Thanks so much to those of you who contacted me--Roger would have appreciated the immediate, easy way people were able to reach out to each other. I would love to see a map of the world dotted with those whose lives he affected and the amazing web of connections he spun between us.
My husband knows too much about cancer, and Roger's "leave of presence" message from the previous day had caused him to remark that the end was probably near. We had no idea it would happen within 24 hours, though.
As some of you may know, Roger and I were Twitter and email friends. Not wanting to waste The Great Man's time, I only communicated with him when I had something on my mind that I thought he would appreciate. And he would contact me as well. My Gmail says we had 92 conversations.
One of my favorite exchanges with him was in 2011 regarding the movie Crumb, a documentary I've loved and rewatched on VHS countless times. I had received the Blu-ray edition that included Roger's commentary track for Christmas. I listened to it as I painted one day and told him about how I appreciated his insights and how great it was to hear his voice for a while. We talked about R. Crumb's brothers and their "stupid mother" (Roger's words). It was fun and more than a bit surreal to talk about one of my favorite movies with Roger Freaking Ebert.
He especially liked it when I sent updates about nature, farming, and the weather in this part of the state. I live a few miles from his boyhood/college hometown, and I'd let him know when the corn was sprouting and show him photos of things like a cluster of mushrooms I'd found growing beside a tree stump in the yard.
As time passed, his email messages became shorter--sometimes just a sentence or two, but always cordial and often humorous. Ignatiy Vishnevesky explained why his notes were so brief in his wonderful letter to Roger from a few days ago:
"You communicated largely through your computer, but you typed slowly, your hand hovering over a key before pressing down. It could take you thirty seconds to type out a sentence."
He wanted to include it in a blog he was writing and credited me there, mentioning (incorrectly) that he owned two of my paintings. I sent Roger a quick "I'm pretty sure you just have the Art Theater" message, and he responded with,
I believe I have that one and the child with the book shelf. I've been in the hospital so it's hard to say…
Anyway, I feel like I have 2. And it sounds better :)Cheers,R
Sometimes he'd send emails to me accidentally--meant for other people--and I'd let him know. In February I got one containing some confidential information regarding Ebertfest and his health. He had some big, wonderful plans for the last day. I told him his secret was safe with me and he called me a dear friend. Imagine!
It's hard to describe what it's been like to have known him even in my minor way. He had over 800,000 followers on Twitter and followed 255. I had the extreme good fortune to be one of them. Whenever I tweeted something, I asked myself, "Is this Roger-worthy?" So there were no "going to the library LOL" tweets from me. He was my writing's conscience, the little voice I heard and continue to hear before I hit "post."
Just when I thought he wasn't reading this blog anymore--the man was beyond busy--I'd get a comment (!!!!!!) or a retweet. He even read at least one of my recipes. He made my month when he told his Twitter followers that "damn it, she's right" when I ranted about how most fruit crisps contain too much fruit and nowhere near enough crisp. Roger Ebert cared about the fruit-to-crisp ratio!
So the past few days have been loaded with Roger memories.
I was in the right place at the right time when he discovered my watercolors. He gave me confidence to pursue my dream. I've made new friends because of him. I've sold watercolors and prints because of him. He gave me the idea for one of my best paintings. He sent me messages from the hospital asking me how I was. He told me "I'm there with you--thank God for Jeff" during my cancer scare.
I was lucky to have met him in person two years ago. He looked at me and applauded. He wrote in his notepad that I was an artist and underlined it. I'll never forget it.
Roger did so much for me, and he didn't have to do any of it. But he did. He did, and I'm one of many, many people who have been saying things like this over the past few days. I can't thank him enough, but I think the best thing any of us can do to remember Roger is to try to be as kind, thoughtful, and appreciative of beauty as he was.
What a life. What a hero. I miss him very much.