Don’t call Chaz Ebert a widow. She’s Roger’s wife. Since his death in April of 2013, she says she still feels his presence. She knows it sounds a little crazy, but she says they still communicate in their own way.
There was always magic in their relationship. She admits that their partnership was unlikely. He was a white, Catholic film critic and television star who'd been a life-long bachelor. She was a black lawyer and mother with a proud history as a civil rights activist. They first met after an AA meeting, and their connection was instant. Whatever hang-ups about personal history or race she may have had, she knew she loved Roger Ebert.
When they married in 1992, she left her law practice to manage his business dealings. After he was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, she also became a full-time caretaker, buoying him through years of treatments, setbacks, and recovery. His lower jaw was removed in 2006, and Roger eventually lost the ability to eat solid food, and to speak. He continued writing and reviewing movies, and when he asked her, Chaz spoke for him.
Now, she’s touring the country talking about Roger and the documentary about him, Life Itself. She spoke to me about mourning her husband in public, and the presence he still has in her life today.
What happened when Roger lost his ability to speak:
Almost nothing, because Roger and I developed almost a mental telepathy. We were so in tune with each other that we actually could speak to each other without words or without even being in the same room . . . And I know that happens—sometimes when he was in the hospital, I would wake up in the middle of the night, and I would call the hospital and I would say, oh my God, he is so cold. Would you please go in and put the warming blanket on him? And the nurse would come back and go, how do you know? Did he call you? And they would say, he couldn’t call you. He can’t speak. And I said, I don’t know, but he just told me it was cold.
How she still feels Roger in her life:
He still talks to me. Yeah, he does....It’s very comforting, because he lets me know that he’s okay. He’s more than okay. He is blissful. It is so reassuring, It just makes me smile to know that he is this...I don’t know what he is. I don’t know what form we’re in. But I know that it’s something that’s comforting. And it feels so natural and so normal, and I know that there are a lot of things that we shut down talking about in our society, things that we can’t prove. But now I firmly, firmly believe in an afterlife.
How sobriety helped their relationship from the beginning:
I tell you, I think it was a gift, because when you are someone who is sober and you’re very grateful for being sober, you realize, that’s a process that increases your compassion for other people. It really helps you to minimize the small talk, and you’re more willing to talk more openly and honestly with someone about the things that are important in life. And so, when Roger and I first met, I think we fell right into a conversation that turned out to be our lifelong conversation with each other.
You can read a full transcript of our interview, and see the documentary Life Itself in select theaters or on demand. Here's a preview:
When You're AwayArtist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt, BMILabel: BWN Music
"Through the Night"Artist: Kenneth J Brahmstedt, BMIAlbum: BWN CatalogLabel: BWN Music
"Quiet Horizon"Artist: Daniel Jensen, BMIAlbum: BWN CatalogLabel: BWN Music
“The word widow – that word almost makes you feel alone. I think that’s why, in the beginning I rejected it, and people would say, they would write, Roger’s widow, and I would say, please no, write Roger’s wife.”
This is…. Death, Sex & Money.
The show from WNYC about the things we think about a lot...and need to talk about more.
I’m Anna Sale.
Chaz Ebert married her husband Roger in 1992. She was 39, a divorced lawyer and mother of two. He was 50, and up to that point, a life-long bachelor.
Roger was already famous. His poetic, populist movie reviews for the Chicago Sun-Times were widely syndicated. He was best known, though, for his thumb — whether it was up, or down – and for sparring with Gene Siskel.
Gene Siskel died of a brain tumor in 1999. Three years later, ROGER was diagnosed cancer of the salivary and thyroid glands. In 2006, his lower jaw was removed. Roger eventually lost his ability to speak and eat solid food… but he kept writing, reviewing, and tweeting, through hospital stays, rehab, the improvements and setbacks. Chaz was right beside him throughout.
You see that, in a new documentary called Life Itself.
It chronicles Roger Ebert’s life up through his final days when he died in April of 2013.
The first time I saw a clip of Roger in the hospital, I gasped, because I did not know that he was that — I mean he looked sick. But then you see that he has the same twinkle, he’s the same Roger, and you see all of his life-affirming qualities.
What’s it been like touring the country and talking about your husband and your marriage and his death as you’ve introduced this movie to the world?
You know in the beginning, Anna, touring the country to talk about losing Roger, to promote the movie Lie itself, was a little surreal, it was a little painful in the beginning. But I love talking about Roger. And it’s sort of cathartic because it gives me a chance to relive the good times with him, and the times before he was sick and not just the times when he was ill. But it also allows me to sort of reflect on the grace of the time that he was ill, because he was so — the only word I can think of — he was so joyful. He really accepted everything and it made it easier to live through those times.
I want to talk about your love story. Roger wrote in his memoir of you, she fills my horizon, she is the great fact of my life, she has my love, she saved me from the fate of living out my life alone, which is where I seemed to be heading. The film reveals that you two met in AA.
What do you think sharing that, sharing going through the process of sobriety, recovery — How do you think that played into the early days of your relationship?
I tell you, I think it was a gift, because when you are someone who is sober and you’re very grateful for being sober, you realize, that’s a process that increases your compassion for other people. It really helps you to minimize the small talk, and you’re more willing to talk more openly and honestly with someone about things that are important in life. And so when Roger and I first met, I think we fell right into a conversation that turned out to be our lifelong conversation with each other. That very first night. He was so charming and so smart and so funny and just sort of no BS kind of guy. And I really, I was attracted to that.
Is that how you thought of him before meeting him?
No, I did not. I have to be honest with you Anna, and it still pains me to say this, but before I met Roger, when I used to watch he and Gene Siskel on the TV show, I actually sided with Gene most of the time, and I thought that — I don’t know, there was something — I don’t know why I did, but once I met Roger and discovered what a great guy he was, of course, he became my favorite.
Did you think he was a bit of a loud-mouth before you met him?
No, no, no, no. That’s not what I thought. You know what I thought? I thought that he, hh, God, I hate saying this. I told him that I thought that he let Gene beat up on him too much. And that I thought that he should fight back more.
That’s really beautiful that even before you knew him you were his advocate. You know? You’re like, come on Roger!
You both had lived full lives before you met. He’d become famous, he won his Pulitzer Prize. You’d been a civil rights activists, you’d married and raised two children and become a litigator. Were you surprised that this was the guy you were falling for?
I was surprised only in the sense that he was of a different race. But, we had so much in common when we met, that I don’t know if I was surprised. I mean, some years before, some of my friends would’ve been surprised.
Wait what do you mean?
When I was in college, I was the head of the Black Student Union, and I was in college in the late 60s and very early 70s, and so I also participated in marches, and you know I would go to college campuses and speak on the same card as like, Angela Davis and Shirley Chisholm, and I marched when Dr. King, not in Washington, but when Dr. King came to Chicago, my dad and I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, so I was an activist. And so I think the people who knew me then would’ve never thought that I would marry someone who would marry someone who was not black. I’ll just say it that way.
Did you feel comfortable falling in love with a white man?
I did, I felt comfortable falling in love. But when it became serious and I knew we were going to marry, I did talk to my mother about it. And I asked, what do you think people would say, and she said, it doesn’t matter what people would say. What do you say? What does your heart say? That’s what you listen to.
Yeah, and your heart said, I love Roger.
My heart said, I love Roger. And I think that they, there was always acceptance right from the beginning, and my family accepted him right from the beginning as well. As far as I knew. No one ever expressed anything. And the one thing that I also did was I made sure Roger made his own friendship with my son and daughter. I didn’t want to stand in as the intermediary because I saw when people are blending their families, if you start out as the intermediary, that’s the role you have to play forever. And I didn’t want to do that. And so right from the beginning, he and my son and daughter became friends. And so when their children were born, he was the grandfather right from the beginning.
Life Itself shows Roger surrounded by Chaz’s family during a hospital stay. He gives his teenage granddaughter Raven another in a long line of movie recommendations.
Coming up, Chaz Ebert talks about how her marriage changed as Roger neared death.
“He talked about the oneness of the world. And that, and believe me, that is not how Roger spoke. He was very much a Darwinian, Mister Scientific.”
Since the start of the show, you have been sending in your stories about death – some about personal losses, some confronting it day in and day out. Ben Yudin wrote in from Cincinnati. He’s a 34 years old Orthodox rabbi, and hospice chaplain. He said he didn’t plan on working around so much death, but it just happened…as he served residents of a retirement center:
“We should be the ones to care for them in their last hours, not strangers. To be honest it has been an incredible journey, and I have experienced parts of life that most people my age are terrified of.”
I want to hear more of your stories about death — and I’m curious about about funerals. That time of constant reflection on the person you’ve lost, and what it means for the rest of your life. Share your story of a funeral that changed your life. Maybe it was someone close to you — or not. I’m interested in memorial services where you left different than how you arrived.
Send an email, or even better – a voice memo with your smartphone to record your voice --- about a funeral that changed your life. Send it to email@example.com.
On the next episode — another sort of life-changing moment. When comedian Chris Gethard started dating Hallie Bulleitt, he fell hard, and developed a sudden interest in interior decorating.
“It was like, okay, I have not had my stuff together, you’re giving me a chance. So look at all these frames and all this bedding."
"I mean, I could tell…he went out and bought new bedding, like he’s totally trying…"
"I didn’t want her to be in my house with all my unframed posters and all my crappy bedding.”
This is Death, Sex & Money from WNYC. I’m Anna Sale.
Chaz Ebert stopped practicing law when she married Roger, and ran the business side of things for him. They worked side-by-side throughout their marriage. As he became sicker, and was only able to communicate through a computer, Chaz’s role grew.
At some point, he asked me to be his voice. So we would do some things on the computer, and then he would say, but I want you to say this. It’s important for you to say this part. You know, and so we — when he was very sick, it felt like we became one person. There, I didn’t feel the boundaries that you feel with two people. And I know those boundaries so well because when he got better and he got stronger, those boundaries were resurrected. And I became my own person again and he became his own person. But the period where we became one was a very interesting period when I think back on it. Because I didn’t realize that that’s what was happening. I don’t even know how to explain it. But I actually did feel him in my soul when we became one person.
What changed between you two when he was no longer able to talk to you with his voice?
Almost nothing, because Roger and I developed almost a mental telepathy. We were so in tune with each other that we actually could speak to each other without words or without even being in the same room.
Like a deep ability to understand what he was prompting, like what he wanted to communicate?
I don’t know, to me, I actually heard his voice in my head.
Yeah. And I know that happens — sometimes when he was in the hospital, I would wake up in the middle of the night and I would call the hospital and I would say, oh my God, he is so cold, would you please go in and put the warming blanket on him? And the nurse would come back and go, well how do you know? Did he call you? And they would say, well he couldn’t call you, he can’t speak. And I said, I don’t know, but he just told me it was cold. See, you know, I have to tell you. I knew you weren’t gonna ask me just the standard questions. I just knew it. And I had a little trepidation because I know, I’m probably gonna say things here that I probably shouldn’t say, but—
Well let’s pause and talk about that a bit because I, in thinking about our conversation, I was wondering where those boundaries are for you. Because—
No, you know what I’m gonna tell you, Anna, there are none. And that’s why I was a little — no, you can just ask me anything, and if something gets too hard or too, I’ll tell you. Alright?
When was the last time you heard his voice in your head?
Hmm. Very recently. He still talks to me. Yeah, he does.
You feel his presence. And you hear it, I mean you hear it.
Yeah, I do. You know Anna, I have to — and I say this, I don’t know why Roger and I were brought together, I do feel that there’s — it almost feels like a destiny to it, because there are some parts of our getting together that didn’t make sense. And our bond was so strong that I wondered about it. I mean, and now the fact that he still is in touch with me and communicates with me, that’s also — I mean it’s a wondrous thing.
Does that make you feel less sad?
It does. It’s very comforting, because he lets me know that he’s okay. He’s more than okay. He is blissful.
Because when he was nearing death, in the documentary, it shows that he died when he was ready to go, and you weren’t quite ready for him to go.
And do you feel like it’s been reassuring to know that he was ready?
It is so reassuring, It just makes me smile to know that he is this, I don’t know what he is. I don’t know what form we’re in. But I know that it’s something that’s comforting. And it feels so natural and so normal and I know that there are a lot of things that we shut down talking about in our society, because, things that we can’t prove. But now I firmly, firmly believe in an afterlife.
Did you believe in an afterlife before he passed?
I don’t know. I don’t know what I thought happened after death. I haven’t had this experience — I’ve lost several family members, my mother, my father, two brothers, and two sisters, and the rest, I haven’t had an experience like this that I’m having with Roger, where he kind of reports back. So I don’t know what I thought about the afterlife. I have zero fear of death. Zero. What I do talk about with my children and grandchildren is living. We don’t talk about death so much as living. And telling them to do, find their passion in life and live it. Because we don’t know how much time is promised to us.
That’s Chaz Ebert. Roger Ebert’s wife.
A little less than a year before his death, Roger wrote a blog post, titled Roger Loves Chaz. “Her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave. Does that sound too dramatic? You were not there,” Roger wrote.
The documentary about Roger Ebert’s life and death is in select theaters across the country through fall of 2014. The complete list is at rogerebert.com. It’s also available for instant streaming on Amazon or iTunes.
Death, Sex and Money is a production of WNYC. The team includes Emily Botein, James Ramsay, Jessica Miller, Henry Molofsky, Chris Bannon, Mitra Kaboli, Bill O’Neill and Jim Briggs.
The Reverend John Delore and Steve Lewis wrote our theme music.
If the you like the show – tell some other people. Share this episode on Facebook – or write us a review on iTunes.
I’m on twitter @annasale. Again, send your stories of life-changing funerals to firstname.lastname@example.org.
And thank you, again, Chaz Ebert, for sharing your story.
I just knew that when I talked to you, I just knew it, I thought, this is going to be a disaster.
Do you feel like it was a disaster?
Yes, because I should’ve stuck to my script.
But I do really think you’re not the only person who’s experienced this when they’ve lost a partner.
Yeah, but most people are smart enough not to say it.
I’m Anna Sale. This is Death Sex & Money from WNYC.