Roger EbertPhoto by Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Like many, for most of my life Roger Ebert has been a vaguely familiar and pleasant face — paired with Gene Siskel and opining with his thumbs. And, like many, I was captivated by Chris Jones’ profile of Ebert in a recent issue of Esquire. As a necessary preface to his story, Jones describes how in 2006, after a series of surgeries battling thyroid cancer, Ebert's jaw was removed — also removing his ability to eat solid foods and talk.

What may sound like a tragedy reads in many ways as a rebirth. The challenges of his new life are very clear, but Ebert seems to have rediscovered himself in a way that he's made public on his blog and even through his Twitter account. One of the more striking aspects of the Esquire article is a full-page portrait of Ebert that made no attempt to conceal his face, post-jaw removal. Jones describes one aspect of Ebert’s new face in detail:

"… because he's missing sections of his jaw, and because he's lost some of the engineering behind his face, Ebert can't really do anything but smile. It really does take more muscles to frown, and he doesn't have those muscles anymore. […] Anger isn't as easy for him as it used to be. Now his anger rarely lasts long enough for him to write it down."

I was reminded, in a way, of an essay by our recent guest, E. Ethelbert Miller, called "Langston's Buddha Smile":

"For me, looking at Langston, with his Buddha smile and easy laugh, makes me think about what it means to possess a poet’s heart. I too have known rivers."

Obviously, there's a world of difference between these two smiles in terms of circumstances, but something resonates here with me. Jones' description of Ebert's new life seems to hint at spiritual transformation, although perhaps as a self-declared atheist Ebert wouldn't feel comfortable with that language. Maybe it's a "poet's heart" then, but it's evident in his honest and gracious response to Jones' profile:

"I mentioned that it was sort of a relief to have that full-page photo of my face. Yes, I winced. What I hated most was that my hair was so neatly combed. Running it that big was good journalism. It made you want to read the article."

And perhaps moreso in his words on "dying in increments":

"I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, 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."

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2Reflections

Reflections

... reading this reminded me of my experience w my dad when, due to stroke, he was unable to talk for several years. My dad was not disfigured, however, but that made it even more interesting when old friends would greet him and find him dumbstruck, but otherwise unchanged. My dad was v comfy w computers, as is Ebert, so that was a grace for him too. He managed to regain much of his productivity that way. I remember the experience well: the awkward silences can be profound; the "mind reading"; the body language; the ache of great fondness; the significant eye contact. It is different living, but it is just as rich and meaningful (perhaps more) as the talking kind.

The Ebert profile in Esquire was wonderful. Those of us who have conditions which alter our bodies appreciate Roger Ebert's energy in continuing the passion of his professional life, writing reviews of movies. Doing something we love helps us get over the difficulties associated with the change people observe when they see us. It also helps us with those indignities which go unseen [thank god for all concerned] which my wife refers to as "the dailies." I am sure Mr. Ebert has his own set of dailies as is evidenced by the difficulties with eating that were described in the Esquire piece. So thanks Krista Tippett for including Ebert's Buddha smile.