Roger Ebert is a world-renowned film critic whose website got 92 million visits last year. He has also had a rough ride over the past decade, battling various forms of cancer and undergoing serious and invasive operations, which left him unable to speak normally. He also can no longer eat or drink.
That was the subject of an amazing and amazingly poignant column from Ebert earlier this week, called “Nil by Mouth.” I can’t recommend it enough. It’s the furthest thing from self-pity that you’ll ever read; on the contrary, it really makes you appreciate the simple things that really give quality to life, and his appreciation for those things. Here is an excerpt:
Nobody said as much in so many words, but it gradually became clear that it wouldn’t ever be right again. There wasn’t some soul-dropping moment for that realization. It just…developed. I never felt hungry, I never felt thirsty, I wasn’t angry because the doctors had done their best. But I went through a period of obsession about food and drink. I came up with the crazy idea of getting some Coke through my g-tube. My doctors said, sure, a little, why not? For once the sugar and a little sodium wouldn’t hurt. I even got some tea, and a little coffee, before deciding that caffeine addiction was something I didn’t need.
I dreamed. I was reading Cormac McCarthy’s Suttree, and there’s a passage where the hero, lazing on his river boat on a hot summer day, pulls up a string from the water with a bottle of orange soda attached to it and drinks. I tasted that pop so clearly I can taste it today. Later he’s served a beer in a frosted mug. I don’t drink beer, but the frosted mug evoked for me a long-buried memory of my father and I driving in his old Plymouth to the A&W Root Beer stand (gravel driveways, carhop service, window trays) and his voice saying “…and a five-cent beer for the boy.” The smoke from his Lucky Strike in the car. The heavy summer heat.
For nights I would wake up already focused on that small but heavy glass mug with the ice sliding from it, and the first sip of root beer. I took that sip over and over. The ice slid down across my fingers again and again. But never again.
Wow. Ebert may not be able to eat, drink or speak, but man can he write — which he proves by the one-two punch of this next paragraph:
One day in the hospital my brother-in-law Johnny Hammel and his wife Eunice came to visit. They are two of my favorite people. They’re Jehovah’s Witnesses, and know I’m not. I mention that because they interpreted my story in terms of their faith. I described my fantasies about root beer. I could smell it, taste it, feel it. I desired it. I said I’d remembered so clearly that day with my father for the first time in 60 years.
“You never thought about it before?” Johnny asked.
“Could be, when the Lord took away your drinking, he gave you back that memory.”
He goes on to detail memories, as triggered by food, and it’s all suffused with longing and bittersweetness in a way that will just get you. (I personally choked up several times, especially hearkening back to one of my favorite memories-by-food moments: New Year’s Day 1991, and the unsliced rye my mom brought home that was still hot. We tore into that bread like savages, which was precisely how you are supposed to eat bread, in my opinion.) It’s also an amazing reminder of what this guy is capable of, still — I had known he was ill, but confess to forgetting completely of late — he just seems so active through his columns and (very snappy) Twitter feed.
And — that’s the point. He is active. He can’t eat or drink, but he can produce something like this to make the rest of us appreciate it a bit more. It was one of the more moving things I’ve read in a while. I highly recommend it.
Nil by Mouth [Roger Ebert’s Journal]
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