On the morning of July 1, 2006, film critic Roger Ebert finished packing his suitcase, thrilled to be leaving the hospital after a two-week stay. A low-grade cancer had been successfully removed from his jaw and reconstructive facial surgery had gone so well it left Ebert looking, in the words of his wife, Chaz, “like a movie star.” Feeling great, Ebert planned to get right back to work. He thanked the doctors who had come to his room to say goodbye. At that moment, “my carotid artery ruptured,” says Ebert, who now remembers little else of that day or of the many desperate days that followed. Bleeding extensively, Ebert was rushed into surgery. “I was close to death,” he says.
Now, after nearly 11 months and several other near-death experiences, Ebert, 64, enters the living room of his elegant book- and art-filled Chicago home with a slow gait and a smile. Though he has not been able to speak since a breathing tube was inserted into his neck after the artery rupture, Ebert has agreed to be interviewed as part of a coming-out that in the past few weeks included a triumphant return to his annual Overlooked Film Festival and the acceptance of an invitation by friend Oprah Winfrey to attend the Chicago red-carpet premiere of The Color Purple. To each question, Ebert gives a brief response written in longhand in the notebook he always carries with him. Chaz, his wife of 14 years, elaborates on his answers. “I refuse to become a recluse,” writes Ebert of his decision to return to public life. “I have a crooked mouth and a dressing around my neck. Nothing to be ashamed of. We spend too much time hiding illness.”
Until recently, any return was far from certain. From that first emergency, Ebert’s long recovery has been plagued by serious complications and additional surgeries. Though a self-described optimist by nature, Ebert endured the darkest of days. “My whole life was turned upside down,” he writes. “I had always been healthy, and now this.”
“This” began with a growth on Ebert’s left jaw, the result of salivary gland cancer that spread to the mandible. Ebert had undergone surgery for the same cancer twice before, the first time in 1987. When the cancer resurfaced in 2006, it was not thought to be life-threatening. But after the carotid artery ruptured (likely a result of previous radiation treatments), everything changed. “I had gone to the hospital to pick Roger up and first stopped in the cafeteria to get a cup of coffee,” says Chaz, a civil trial attorney. “Someone came rushing up to me and said, ‘Mrs. Ebert, we need you upstairs right now!’ Looking back, we were fortunate. If the bleeding had started after we left the hospital, Roger probably wouldn’t be here.”
Ebert’s family and friends, including TV costar Richard Roeper, gathered at the hospital. “It looked very bad,” says Sonia Evans, Chaz’s daughter from a previous marriage. “We all grabbed hands in a circle and prayed.”
No one knew then that this prayer vigil would extend over months as Ebert continued to experience episodes of bleeding. “I was in a fog,” writes Ebert. “I remember almost nothing of my time in the hospital.” Despite the erasure of his memory, Ebert was sometimes alert enough to hold written conversations with visitors, as evidenced by the large stack of notebooks Chaz has saved. “Roger doesn’t want to look at them,” she says. “But one day he will want to know.”
Though Ebert was stable enough to be released from Chicago’s Northwestern Memorial that October, his extended bed rest had left him unable to walk, requiring six weeks of physical therapy. “I was at first in deep depression,” says Ebert. “But the daily regimen and loving care got me out of it.”
In November, Ebert underwent reconstructive surgery for a second time, the last step in the expected return to what Chaz refers to as his previous “charmed” life. “We knew that Roger would be able to eat again, walk again, talk again,” says Chaz. “He was having these beautiful dreams.” But those dreams came crashing down when Ebert once again experienced serious complications. Doctors had to dismantle his facial reconstruction during another extended hospital stay. “I was in despair,” writes Ebert of that time. “We felt like we had no control,” echoes Chaz.
Chaz spent each day at her husband’s side, trying to keep his spirits up and giving him pep talks. Every night she would recite for him the 23rd Psalm: “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death …” Says Chaz: “One time Roger was staring at me as if he had seen an apparition. I asked, ‘Why are you staring at me like that?’ He said, ‘May I borrow your faith?'”
Ebert remained hospitalized through February of this year—a total of eight months—and then entered the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to begin again the process of learning how to walk.
Today, Ebert uses his clear blue eyes to compensate for his lack of voice. In particular he often gives them a certain roll, which speaks volumes in a multitude of circumstances. “I know most times when he’s trying to tell me something,” says Chaz. “His eyes are very expressive.” Still, for Ebert, this isn’t enough. He writes, “Speechlessness is like the amputation of a limb I didn’t know I had.”
A third attempt at facial reconstruction is still ahead, this time performed as a series of smaller, low-risk surgeries. Ebert remains free of cancer, and his doctors tell him there is no reason not to expect an eventual full recovery, including his ability to speak. Until then, he and Chaz take slow walks in a park near their home and trips to the Apple Store to check out the newest computers. During his convalescence, the lifelong film critic has turned to the classic books of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen and Henry James rather than the latest movie.
Toward the end of today’s interview, Ebert grows tired, shutting his eyes, needing to rest. Chaz once more recites the 23rd Psalm. She begins, “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.” Hearing these words, Ebert is energized, clasping Chaz’s hand in his, an unmistakable look of love directed her way. “He restoreth my soul…. My cup runneth over….”
As Chaz concludes, Ebert grabs his pen, quickly writes in his notebook and then points to his wife. A professional man of words, this time Ebert has chosen only two to express himself fully. They read, “My angel.”