One of the world’s truly great cinema critics is dying. In all likelihood, Roger Ebert doesn’t have much time left. But is it true that there are no atheists in foxholes, no unbelievers on their deathbeds. Well, if Ebert is any indication, the answer is no:
I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear, he writes in a journal entry titled “Go Gently into That Good Night.” 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. 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.
There has been no death-row conversion. He has not found God. He has been beaten in some ways. But his other senses have picked up since he lost his sense of taste. He has tuned better into life. Some things aren’t as important as they once were; some things are more important than ever. He has built for himself a new kind of universe. Roger Ebert is no mystic, but he knows things we don’t know.
I believe that if, at the end of it all, according to our abilities, we have done something to make others a little happier, and something to make ourselves a little happier, that is about the best we can do. To make others less happy is a crime. To make ourselves unhappy is where all crime starts. We must try to contribute joy to the world. That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try. I didn’t always know this, and am happy I lived long enough to find it out.
Ebert takes joy from the world in nearly all the ways he once did. He has had to find a new way to laugh — by closing his eyes and slapping both hands on his knees — but he still laughs. He and Chaz continue to travel. (They spent Thanksgiving in Barbados.) And he still finds joy in books, and in art, and in movies — a greater joy than he ever has. He gives more movies more stars.
Thank you, Mr. Ebert, for your lifetime of work, for your inspiring words, and for your grace at this late hour. You’ve touched millions of people and when you do finally reach that undiscovered country, you will not be forgotten.