World of Illusion

The Passing of Roger Ebert 

By Chaz Ebert, his wife

Image This world is all an elaborate hoax, an illusion. – Roger

 We were on our way to a movie screening in December. Roger was having a hard time moving around that morning, and we didn’t know why. It was so strange, because he was totally fine the day before, and now he was in so much pain. Instead of going to the movie, we went to the doctor, who sent us to the hospital, and we found out that his hip was fractured. He hadn’t fallen or anything like that. His hip had just broken. For maybe two months after that, he was shuttling between the hospital and the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago, learning how to walk again, and somewhere in there, I can’t remember exactly when, we learned that Roger’s cancer had returned. His cancer wasn’t connected to his hip—some medication he’d been taking had weakened his bones—but when he was in the hospital they found the cancer had come back in his head and neck, and it had spread.

Roger started getting radiation treatments. The radiation wasn’t going to cure him this time. We knew that. The doctors told us that he had maybe two years left. Because we’re optimists, we thought that we might have three more years together.

He came home from the hospital on Valentine’s Day. I got a big heart made of twigs and dried plants and things like that. It almost looks like a wreath. I hung it over the fireplace in our living room. I wanted to surprise him with it. Now it’s my touchstone. Someone moved it the other day and I almost went ballistic. I look for it as soon as I walk into the house. It was only supposed to be up for that week, but now it’s going to be up there forever.

Roger wasn’t home for long, just a few days. We didn’t know it, but he’d picked up pneumonia in the hospital. He went back into the hospital—back and forth between the hospital and the Rehab Institute. He got better. He was able to walk, he was writing. We made all these plans. We were looking forward to lots of things. He was going to have to do less (the treatments made him tired), but he was still going to be Roger.

On April 4, he was strong enough again for me to take him back home. My daughter and I went to pick him up. When we got there, the nurses were helping him get dressed. He was sitting on his bed, and he looked really happy to be going home. He was smiling. He was sitting almost like Buddha, and then he just put his head down. We thought he was meditating, maybe reflecting on his experiences, grateful to be going home. I don’t remember who noticed first, who checked his pulse… . In the beginning, of course, I was totally freaked out. There was some kind of code thing, and they brought machines in. I was stunned. But as we realized he was transitioning out of this world and into the next, everything, all of us, just went calm. They turned off the machines, and that room was so peaceful. I put on his music that he liked, Dave Brubeck. We just sat there on the bed together, and I whispered in his ear. I didn’t want to leave him. I sat there with him for hours, just holding his hand.

Roger looked beautiful. He looked really beautiful. I don’t know how to describe it, but he looked peaceful, and he looked young.

The one thing people might be surprised about—Roger said that he didn’t know if he could believe in God. He had his doubts. But toward the end, something really interesting happened. That week before Roger passed away, I would see him and he would talk about having visited this other place. I thought he was hallucinating. I thought they were giving him too much medication. But the day before he passed away, he wrote me a note: “This is all an elaborate hoax.” I asked him, “What’s a hoax?” And he was talking about this world, this place. He said it was all an illusion. I thought he was just confused. But he was not confused. He wasn’t visiting heaven, not the way we think of heaven. He described it as a vastness that you can’t even imagine. It was a place where the past, present, and future were happening all at once.

It’s hard to put it into words. I just loved him. I loved him so much, I think I thought he was invincible. To tell you the truth, I’m still waiting for things to unfold. I have this feeling that we’re not finished. Roger’s not finished.

To me, Roger was magic. He was just magic. And I still feel that magic. I talk to him, and he talks back.

As told to Chris Jones for Esquire.

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