I decided today to crack Studs Terkel's 2001 book on death, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?, and re-read his interview with Chaz Ebert, Roger Ebert's wife. It was always one of my favorite interviews in the book, and with Roger dying and today being a particularly beautiful & peaceful (and hence, contemplative) Sunday, I wanted to take another look at Chaz's interview, and share it with the Eye on Chi & ChicagoNow readers.
Chaz tells of her experiences with death and the beyond... her mother, who had recently died, was according to Chaz "a prophet, a seer, a psychic, and a minister." The interview opens with Chaz telling a story about meeting the grim reaper, who told her that her father-in-law (from her first marriage) would die. The next morning, they got the call – he had died the night before, during her visit.
I haven't found an exact date on the interview, but she states that "I just lost my mother in November," and then tells a story from December of 1999 about seeing her mother in a dream, so I assume the interview took place in early 2000, about a year before the book was published.
Anyhow, I am taking this as an opportunity to transcribe a master and share a great interview. To buy the book, go here, or if you're in Chicago, I know they have at least once copy of it at Myopic Books on Milwaukee. I saw it there yesterday.
And finally, from rogerebert.com (a fabulously improved site, incidentally), Ebert's story on Studs' 95th birthday from May 2007. Chaz was present. I'll bet it was a great day.
TWO NOTES ON THE TRANSCRIPTION:
1. I have kept all of the graphs, line spaces, punctuation, etc. as they appear in Studs' book, with the exception of adding a space after the ellipsis and spaces between the dashes, both of which looked okay in print but too cramped online. That said, I have bolded sentences here or there to draw readers to specific passages, to share my own favorites, and simply to make the block text more digestible – the layout is fine in the book but looks a bit bulky & unmanageable online.
2. I transcribed this relatively quickly, and though I proofed it's possible I missed an error. So if you see something, please drop a comment in the comment box and I'll fix it as soon as I see it. Thanks!
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? Reflections on Death, Rebirth, and Hunger for a Faith
Ballantine Books, 2001
Part II: Seeing Things, page 174
A lawyer. She is married to Roger Ebert, a film critic.
I'm a black woman who's a mother, I have two children – I'm a grandmother, too. A wife, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a lawyer. Dad was a Baptist, but Mother was spiritualist. She went to the Spiritualist Church – that's an actual religion. Mother believed in communication with people on the other side. My mother was a prophet, a seer, a psychic, and a minister. Dad worked for the packing house and was also a union organizer. I'm not really religious. When I was in college I called myself first an agnostic and then an atheist. But even when I was slightly atheist, I still said my prayers at night just in case – I wanted to hedge my bets. I don't know what I believe. I live my life according to certain laws of physics. I believe that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Our soul, our bodies, everything, if it's all matter and molecules and it can't be destroyed, it goes somewhere. Some religious people think that's Heaven or Hell. I think that we still exist, even when we die. Something of our soul or spirit or energy, matters of particles. I think we exist somewhere and I think we can be reformulated.
THIS SOUNDS REALLY CRAZY, I know, but I've had lots of experiences. For instance, the grim reaper came to me one time – and I never believed in the grim reaper, I thought it was just some mythological thing. My first husband's father was someone that I was very close to. He was dying. He was very sick... In the middle of the night, something woke me up. I opened the door of the bedroom, and there was this figure, about seven feet tall. It had the monk's robe and the whole thing, like the grim reaper. I looked into the face but it was not face – it was just all dark. There were kind of lit orbs where the eyes should be. He communicated to me telepathically. He said, "Don't be afraid, I didn't come for you." He said, "Go over to the bed." I look in the bed where my husband was asleep, but it wasn't my husband anymore. This coffin appeared, and my father-in-law was in it. This lasted for a few seconds, then it all disappeared. Then my husband was there again and I woke him up and I told him that the grim reaper was there and about his father. He said, "I think you were dreaming." I said, "No, I wasn't dreaming, I'm awake!" So we go to sleep, and the next morning we call and they say his father died. His father died at the same time that the grim reaper came to my house. So I think that there's something more when we die. I don't know.
Too many people have had these near-death experiences. Some scientists say these are hallucinations. They say that when people have near-death experiences and they talk about seeing this bright white light, those are things that are already in our brains. That they can make you have a near-death experience while you're just sitting in a chair in a lab if they stimulate certain parts of your brain. That may or may not be true – but I don't think it's a mass hallucination.
See, I... wow – it's really hard for me to say... I believe that there's something. Let's say energy – energy after death. I do believe that. It takes various forms.
Even as a kid, I was always interested in what happens to us when we die. I think most people are. I don't shy away from it, because I just lost my mother in November. Within the last five years I lost my two oldest sisters, and watching them die... I was very close to my sisters. Both of them died around the age of fifty-nine. I sat with them, and they were very courageous. My oldest sister, Carrie, was not afraid when she was dying. And it's not that she welcomed death – she just wasn't afraid. She said there was something very beautiful waiting for her. It's not just her faith that told her that there was something – she learned that in church. But she saw it during the time she was dying, so she wasn't afraid. That took away my fear of death, watching my sister... My other sister, Martha, who was actually more religious, was afraid to die. She didn't want to go to sleep because she said she might not wake up. That confused me, because I thought the more religious you are, you should welcome death – because that means you're going to be with God. But no, she wanted to stay on the earth. It did confuse me.
There were ten of us. Three dead, seven living now. I had four sisters and five brothers. I don't recall my first awareness of death; I just always knew that there was something. I was fascinated with my mother's stories about how when she was growing up in Georgia, when someone died they would have their bodies laid out in the parlor for a month – for a long time. She told me that everyone wore black, and you had the house darkened. The body would just be there and people could visit with it. It's not like today when we're afraid of corpses and we're afraid of bodies and nobody wants to go to a funeral. It seemed like they were more comfortable with it. Back then, death was accepted as a part of life. Now we can prolong life – people live a lot longer. Then, not only was death more accepted as a part of life, but the generations living together were more the norm. I think that's why death was accepted, because if you had all these generations living together, someone was going to die, and that was just a part of life. My mother died right around Thanksgiving. Because she was a member of the Spiritualist Church, and because she was a prophet and a seer, I fully expected her to come back. So I asked my sister if she had seen my mother yet, and she said no. This was after she died. The rest of my family believed. We didn't talk about it a lot when she was alive. When we were kids, we thought our mother was a witch because she had these metaphysical powers. And so we fully expect to see her come back. We do think if it's possible to come back, Mother will come back in some form. We don't know what form she'll take.
In December, 1999, I was out in California and I had this dream about my mother, about meeting her. In the dream I got up to leave and I realized – I looked at her, I said, "Oh my God, this isn't a dream! I'm meeting you somewhere. This is, like, some way station and my spirit is meeting your spirit." And she said, "Yes." I said, "Mom, this isn't a dream because you're not really here, you're dead." She said, "Yes, I am, and I can only be with you just this one night, and then I don't know when you're going to be able to see me again." After that, she didn't communicate by mouth anymore – she started communicating telepathically.
Even if I cease to exist forever, I realize that some of my energy will be reconstituted. Not that I will be reincarnated, but some form of energy will go somewhere. It will live on somewhere. I'm not scared. Not anymore, no – but I don't want to be cremated. Roger would like to be cremated. I want to be buried. Cremation – that bothers me. I was in a fire, my dress was on fire when I was a little girl. I still have the scares. I'm very fascinated with fire as a result of that. But I don't want to be in anything where I'm burning again, ever... That's what I don't like about cremation. I was already in a fire, I was already burning. I can still remember what my flesh smelled like when it was burning, when I was on fire. I was running down the stairs and my dad had to tear off my dress and roll me in a rug. I just don't want to be cremated. I don't want to go through that anymore.
Sometimes when I go to sleep I say, "Well, I might not wake up." And I say, "If I don't wake up tomorrow, am I satisfied with my life right now? Do I think I did a good job? If there is a God – if I'm wrong and there really is someone who's going to be waiting up there to judge me – do I think that I have more checks in the plus side of the book rather than in the negative side of the book?
I used to live in the John Hancock Building, and this happened in 1987, I believe... I was living by myself on the eighty-second floor. I was divorced, my children where away at college. Again, it happened at night – I was asleep. I had been sick, I was dehydrated and that caused me to lose my sight and my hearing for a very short period of time. They took me to a hospital in an ambulance. My sight came back, my hearing came back. I was in bed, this was a day or two later. In the middle of the night something woke me. There was a bright light in my room and there were twins. I call them the twin Virgin Marys. They were on my wall. One was the Black Madonna, as I've seen her in pictures, very similar to the one who was venerated in Latin America and Poland. The other was the traditional picture that you see of the Caucasian Madonna. In front of them where three infants. One was Caucasian, one was black, and the one in the middle was a mixture of all the races of the world. And they said, "This is the true one, and he hasn't come yet" – kind of a Christ child. These Madonnas communicated with me telepathically – their mouths never moved. They said, "This is the true one, he hasn't come yet, and we are entrusted to take care of him until such time as he is coming." That made me think that if there is a Christ, he hasn't been here yet...
I think Roger deals with death much better than I do. He's more pragmatic about it: He knows that people are born, they die. When they're gone, they're not coming back. He doesn't expect to be reunited with them again – even though he was raised Catholic. That's why he wants to be cremated. He doesn't think there's anything more. Cremate him and spread his ashes in all the places he loves: London and Venice and everywhere.
Some Buddhists think that you can choose when to die. I fly a lot, so I might die in a plane crash. If I do, I hope that Roger is sitting next to me and we're holding hands.
My mother died in November, and she had a very beautiful funeral. When I looked at her in the casket... to me, that wasn't my mother. Sometimes people will kiss a corpse. I can't do that because that wasn't my mother. Even though that was her body, embalmed and looking not like her at all – to me. I still feel my mom around me, so that's why I think that there's some energy, something that happens. When you die you're not completely gone. But I do think some people disappear completely. Some people don't leave a trail of dust or anything behind. I know this contradicts what I said earlier about energy not being destroyed. I think people who went timidly through life and really in their souls did not want to leave a mark... I think that people are born with different amounts of cosmic dust. Cosmic dust to me, it means a lot of things. It means our thoughts, our actions, what energy we had before. I think that you can expend your cosmic dust by doing good deeds. People can do bad deeds and still expend it. But they leave something, and they make an impression on other people. But one thing bothers me. I'm still grieving over the deaths of my mother and my sisters. If that energy or matter somehow goes on, why am I still so sad?
Transcribed by Jack M Silverstein, a writer in Chicago. Say hey @readjack.
Roger & Chaz, People.com, photo by Stephen Lovein/Getty.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken? front cover, npr.com.
Chaz Ebert portrait, news-gazette.com, photo by Susan Kantor/The News-Gazette.
Chaz & Roger at their wedding, people.com, courtesy of Roger Ebert.