Laurie Toby Edison

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Roger Ebert: Nil by Mouth

Laurie and Debbie say:

We wrote about Roger Ebert in 2007, on the topic of disfigurement.

Now he has written an especially beautiful post about what he can no longer do:

Understand that I was never told that after surgery I might lose the ability to eat, drink and speak. Eating and drinking were not mentioned, and it was said that after surgery I might actually be able to go back to work on television.

Success in such surgery is not unheard of. It didn’t happen that way. The second surgery was also intended to restore my speaking ability. It seemed to hold together for awhile, but then, in surgeon-speak, also “fell apart.”

A third surgery was attempted, using a different approach. It seemed to work, and in a mirror I saw myself looking familiar again. But after a little more than a week, that surgery failed, too. Blood vessels intended to attach the transplanted tissue lost function, probably because they had been weakened by radiation. A fourth surgery has been proposed, but I flatly reject the idea. To paraphrase a line from “Adaptation’s” orchid collector: “Done with surgery.”

Already, at the beginning, he’s setting the tone: the piece is about what he can do, and refusing a fourth surgery is only one of the kinds of things he can do.

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.

I began to replace what I had lost with what I remembered. If I think I want an orange soda right now, it is after all only a desire. People have those all the time. For that matter, when I had the chance, when was the last time I held one of those tall Nehi glass bottles? I doubt I ever had one from a can.

He waxes eloquent about his taste memories, not the elegant French meals, but the everyday special tastes of childhood and ordinary days.

Another surprising area for sharp memory is the taste and texture of cheap candy. Not imported chocolates, but Red Hots, Good and Plenty, Milk Duds, Paydays, Chuckles. I dreamed I got a box of Chuckles with five licorice squares, and in my dream I exalted: “Finally!” With Necco wafers, there again, the licorice were the best. The peculiar off-purple wafers were space-wasters. As a general rule in candy, if anything is black, red or green, in that order, I like it.

It seems from this article that he has channeled his love for food into a love for remembering food, for thinking about it, for appreciating what he had–and thereby still having it. Replacing what he lost with what he remembers.

For Ebert, this seems to work better for the food itself than for the social aspects of eating together.

What I miss is the society. Lunch and dinner are the two occasions when we most easily meet with friends and family. They’re the first way we experience places far from home. Where we sit to regard the passing parade. How we learn indirectly of other cultures. When we feel good together. Meals are when we get a lot of our talking done — probably most of our recreational talking. That’s what I miss. Because I can’t speak that’s’s another turn of the blade. I can sit at a table and vicariously enjoy the conversation, which is why I enjoy pals like my friend McHugh so much, because he rarely notices if anyone else isn’t speaking.

*snicker* Clearly, he hasn’t lost the ability to get in a good poke in the ribs in the service of honesty, humor, and good writing.

When we drive around town I never look at a trendy new restaurant and wish I could eat there. I peer into little storefront places, diners, ethnic places, and then I feel envy. After a movie we’ll drive past a formica restaurant with only two tables occupied, and I’ll wish I could be at one of them, having ordered something familiar and and reading a book. I never felt alone in a situation like that. I was a soloist.

The loss of dining, not the loss of food. It may be personal, but for, unless I’m alone, it doesn’t involve dinner if it doesn’t involve talking. The food and drink I can do without easily. The jokes, gossip, laughs, arguments and shared memories I miss. Sentences beginning with the words, “Remember that time?” I ran in crowds where anyone was likely to break out in a poetry recitation at any time. Me too. But not me anymore. So yes, it’s sad. Maybe that’s why I enjoy this blog. You don’t realize it, but we’re at dinner right now.

Right now, there are 497 comments on this post. Neither of us has left one yet, but likely we’ll drop in and leave a comment on something, soon. Because (even if you don’t take into account all the other fine things he’s done), he sounds like a marvelous person to have dinner with.

Thanks to Lynn Kendall for the pointer.

One Response to “Roger Ebert: Nil by Mouth”

  1. Lizzy L Says:

    What a beautiful post. I went to the website and read it all; what struck me was the ease and equanimity of his tone. He is not angry, self-pitying, mean — just thoughtful and grateful for what he has. I have not been reading his journal so I don’t know what he had to work through, but how inspiring! How blessed.

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