I like to think that when Roger Ebert opened his next life eyes, two of the first faces he saw were my father and Nora Ephron. You might wonder why I chose my pops, a conservative Republican and loyal Chicago Tribune reader, and an outspoken liberal democrat who felt bad about her neck as his escorts into the next place, so I’ll not keep you in suspense.
FOOD GLORIOUS FOOD!
I don’t know what the next place after this place is like, but I do believe that heaven is all the things we love and then some. My dad, Roger and Nora loved food. They loved talking about it, cooking and baking, trying new recipes, critiquing and dissecting meals, and dear holy GOD I cannot leave out dessert. They didn’t just love food, the LIVED food. Let me explain.
My father loved food in a way I could never understand. I love food, but I am not fond of cooking, baking or sitting still in restaurants and lingering at the table over holiday dinners. I eat to live. And I’m lazy. For example, let’s say PMS has me in a binge eating snit and I can’t stop thinking about pumpkin pie and homemade lasagna. Would I make these things? Hell no! I’d walk to the fridge, sigh loudly before closing my eyes briefly and wishing the foods would magically appear. When I opened my eyes and saw that they did not in fact, materialize, I would then take out a dill pickle, roll it up in a piece of ham and go about my business not thinking much of it again until I felt hungry at which time I would most likely roll up another dill pickle in a slice of delicious hammy ham.
My father would have driven to the nearest Italian restaurant and on the way home he would swing by the bakery to get him some pie!
God, I do love me some pie, but I can’t imagine making a special trip anywhere to pick it up during a particularly intense craving. My pop would and I’m pretty sure that Roger Ebert would have done the exact same thing before that bitch cancer took his eating equipment from him. Nora would have made a pie. Hell, she would have made at least two pies – chocolate and a fruit pie. I can just see her words on the page – “Really, who makes one pie? “
I know my dad would agree. He spent a couple of months vomiting regularly, hardly able to keep anything down and then the last three months of his life drinking liquid supplements, taking tiny sips to ensure that the fluid didn’t back up in his esophagus or clog the titanium stint that was shoved through the sticky ball of a tumor that closed the opening between his esophagus and his stomach.
What fresh hell is that for a man who adored and appreciated food?
In January of 2010, Roger Ebert wrote this in his blog –
“I dreamed. I was reading Cormac McCarthy Suttree, and there's a passage where the hero, lazing on his riverboat 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.”
If you’d like to read the entire journal entry, you can find it here
Reading those words ripped my heart out. I sobbed. I tasted my tears, the rich flavor of the root beer and felt the foam on my upper lip. Roger Ebert added “food writer” to his resume AFTER he lost the ability to eat. So strong was his love and appreciation for food, he was compelled to write about it, and write about it he did. So beautifully in fact, that reading his description of certain foods makes you feel like the aromas are filling up the room and the flavors invading your mouth and tingling on your tongue.
More fresh hell.
Nora Ephron was privately fighting cancer when she wrote the book, “I Remember Nothing and Other Reflections,” and although the readers had no idea she was even sick at the time, there are so many clues in her book that she was preparing to say goodbye, reflecting on a life well lived. Her list of things she would miss included waffles, the concept of waffles, bacon, butter, Thanksgiving dinner and pie. Her book included stories about desserts and meatloaf and how stupid it is for people to avoid salt and egg yolks. How she loved to eat! She declared herself to be the queen of “on the side” because dammit, she liked things the way she liked them and didn’t give half a rat's ass if that meant it took her 10 minutes to place her order at a restaurant.
In the movie, “When Harry Met Sally,” the main character, Sally, was a finicky eater, her character modeled after Ephron. At the end of the movie, we find that one of the things that made Harry fall in love with Sally, is that it took her a “half and hour to order a sandwich.” At first Harry gives Sally a ribbing and claims that she’s high maintenance and does a little impression of her ordering everything “on the side.” It’s funny and charming and lovely that a love story incorporated Nora’s opinion that food, specifically the way food is cooked, served and presented, is of great importance so that it can be enjoyed and appreciated.
One of Nora’s last requests, just days before she died, was a pineapple milkshake, but not with fresh pineapple. NO! She specifically indicated that she preferred her pineapple milkshakes with crushed Dole pineapple and informed her son Max, “When I get out of the hospital, I’m going to go home and I’m going to make a pineapple milkshake with crushed pineapple, pineapple juice and vanilla ice cream, and I’m going to drink it and I’m going to die,” she said, savoring the last word. “It’s going to be great.” She died two days later.
More hell. Not as fresh as the hell of Roger Ebert, but Nora hasn’t even been gone a year yet. I’m so glad the two of them have the rest of eternity to find the perfect slice of pie and get to know my character of a father. Talk about good dinner company!
Upon hearing the news of Roger Ebert's death, I'm sure my father and Ms. Ephron beelined to the next place cross over point, all the while arguing over which heaven restaurant Roger needed to hit first when he crossed over. I'm also sure that people don't argue over piddly squat in heaven, but they were probably just so excited for him! But scrambling to get Mr. Ebert his first magnificent sip from a frosty mug full of cold root beer isn’t fighting – it’s loving! I'd be willing to bet top dollar that the three of them haven't discussed politics over pie OR meatloaf. Not once! They know what it felt like to feel too sick to eat. They suffered from the same disease. Although cancer robbed my father, Roger and Nora of so much, it couldn’t take away their love and appreciation for food glorious food. And now they are eating again - together!
When I heard that Roger Ebert had died, I felt terrible for his family. I’ve been there and watched someone I love suffer, but I also felt sad for me. As a writer who craves the written word and feels compelled to write and share my observations and opinions about this wonderful life we get to live, I grieved the loss of his beautiful and skillful weaving of words. I loved Roger’s blogs and journals the way he loved writing them. I will miss his words.
Much like my father and Nora Ephron, Roger Ebert was a source of inspiration to me, a comforting presence, a beautiful mind and passionate soul that intrigued me and motivated me to be a better writer and a better human being. I'm grateful to him for that. And so, it comforts me now to imagine that he was ushered into his new life in the next place by Jack Sr., my father, and Nora the magnificent - fellow lovers of glorious, marvelous, delicious, heavenly food.
Rest in peace and pie, Roger. You will be missed.