Famed film critic Roger Ebert, 67, lost his ability to speak four years ago during one of his many surgeries for thyroid cancer. He’s now cancer free and is still reviewing up to four movies a day as part of his long career at the Chicago Sun Times. Ebert cannot eat or drink after losing the bottom of his mouth, but he still manages his daily schedule with the help of his devoted wife of 18 years, Chaz.
Last month, Chaz and Roger were profiled on Oprah as part of her pre-Oscar special and I was so touched by both their relationship and their approach to his disability. They didn’t seem overly optimistic to me, but just grateful for the life they shared together and the fact that Ebert could still communicate so effectively through a keyboard. Chaz said she never gave up hope that Roger would pull through his illness, and explained her deep love for him. “When I married Roger, I knew what an amazing man he was. He is smart, he’s funny, he is very respectful of women, he’s appreciative of other cultures… it’s hard to find someone like him and I didn’t want to lose him. I refused to give up.”
In a recent interview, Chaz revealed that people were surprised she responded so strongly and positively in the face of her husband’s medical problems, and that some even tried to pull her down. She wasn’t having it, though, and says that hope is strategy that works. It seems to have worked very well for her and Roger:
Many people — including Roger himself and Oprah — have credited you with saving his life and giving him the will to keep fighting. How much of that is conscious decision on your part, or is it just instinct?
Part of it is instinct and the way I am, and I try to think about this. For instance, I come from a very large family. I have four brothers and four sisters, so if you can imagine, my mom and dad had many situations that were difficult. But the thing our family always did, my mother would say, “Don’t worry, everything’s going to be OK.” She and my dad would roll up their sleeves, mobilize the troops and no matter how bad the situation, you’d think things are going to turn out OK.
Secondly, and I know Roger doesn’t like me telling people this, I just had a very deeply spiritual — almost psychic feeling — that it was not his time to go; that he was going to be around for other things, and that I had to fight for him to be here.
Why doesn’t he like you saying that?
If you talk about things that are deeply spiritual — almost in a metaphysical sense — he gets a little uncomfortable because he’s more of a Darwinian evolutionist, and sometimes I believe in life that if we don’t have all the answers, it’s still a gut instinct that the universe gives us.
If it’s at all possible to think in this sense, what’s the biggest positive to have come out of Roger’s illness?
Yes, there is a positive. The positive is we learned that we are much stronger than we thought we were. We learned that our relationship is so beautiful and so strong. We learned that people come through with support and encouragement when you need it. We learned that you can’t hide. You have to live your life in a joyful manner, no matter your health or your circumstances.
What advice can you give for to those who may be dealing with an illness in the family in regards to keeping a strong attitude during the toughest times?
I think my first piece of advice would be to pray for guidance, and not just in a religious sense. The second step would be to maintain your hope and faith that things will turn out OK, even if people tell you you are in denial. A few people told me when he was really sick and he didn’t look good, and I said, “I have this feeling things will be OK.” They said, “You’re in denial.” I said, “I may be, but hope is a strategy.” And number three, surround yourself with a support group of family and friends.
Next, go on the Internet and look up everything that you can about the illness. Everything you read on the Internet may not be true or accurate, but at least you get some sort of education that we didn’t have before the Internet. That was really essential to me.
Also, don’t be afraid to question the doctors. Sometimes, we think the doctors are the end-all. We had excellent doctors, and yet the situation Roger was in was a very unusual one. So sometimes they were guessing about things just like I was, and sometimes I had an idea of things where I said, “I won’t even bring this up because I don’t know as much as the doctors do.” In a situation like that, you have to question everything… you can’t say, “Oh, they’re too busy.” Ask as many questions as you think you need to ask.
What do you think the future holds for you and Roger?
We are very optimistic about the future. Each day is still fun, I’ll just say it like that. We’re working on putting together a new movie review show for him. As Roger said, instead of slowing him down, his illness is speeding him up. We’re going to try to take advantage of all the new media for the show, so that makes everything feel fresh and new.
Sometimes, I’m almost ashamed we feel so positive. People think you shouldn’t be so happy, because when you fall, it’s going to be that much more disappointing.. But you know what? We’ll take each day as it comes. That’s one of the reasons we were so attracted to each other, because we saw that the positive attitude in each other. It doesn’t mean we don’t have days when we’re very sad. If we could turn back the clock and have Roger regain his voice and beat cancer, we’d do it, of course. But since we can’t, we give what life has given us, and because it’s given us so much good, we can’t complain about the bad.
There’s much more at Popeater, including a funny anecdote about how Chaz convinced Ebert to use Twitter after he initially said it “was for twits.” She also discusses how they’ve been able to stay married for so long, and explains that their mutual interest in the world keeps them interested in each other. “We still feel like we are teenagers in high school, going through life together, having fun, learning about things and still curious about what’s going to happen tomorrow.” I was so impressed by this interview, and by Chaz’s wisdom and outlook. As much as she is lucky to have Roger, he is blessed to have her in his life. They both seem to realize that and to appreciate what they have together. Maybe in their case that’s reality and not just optimism.