Like almost everyone who loves movies, I was saddened to hear of Roger Ebert’s death this week. He was an unparalleled writer who did so much for Chicago, and even more for the movies. He understood storytelling in its every aspect, which is a rare gift. But I am not going to eulogize Mr. Ebert here. That is for other people to do in forums more suited to his legacy.
No, I am going to take a tiny break today from posting about my movie and new theatre company and what personal anxieties I have and what Chicago is like today; though they are all very valid reasons to blog, my mind has been on something Roger Ebert wrote.
In the flood of memories engulfing the internet in the days after his death, one particular piece crested the waves: Mr. Ebert’s gorgeous tribute to his wife, Chaz. It’s an excerpt from his memoir, Life Itself, which I kept meaning to read and which, as books often do when the people who love them have so many, kept falling back into my “to-read” pile. In a way, I’m glad it took me this long to get to it, because this part took my breath away when I read it this week:
How can I begin to tell you about Chaz? 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. If my cancer had come, and it would have, and Chaz had not been there with me, I can imagine a descent into lonely decrepitude. I was very sick. I might have vegetated in hopelessness. This woman never lost her love, and when it was necessary she forced me to want to live. She was always there believing I could do it, and her love was like a wind forcing me back from the grave.
Does that sound too dramatic? You were not there.
My Amma (Icelandic for “grandma”) died three years ago, this week. Watching her slip away from cancer was the single harshest thing I have ever faced–and face it, I’m not actually sure I did; I coped by withdrawing. That was easy to do in a house full of people who took off work for weeks at a time to do whatever they could to help: cousins, aunts, uncles, children, brothers, sisters, spouses, all rallying to simply be there for her and for my strong, humble, loving Afi (grandpa) who loved this woman more than anything in the world, and who never left her side.
I was thinking about Amma this week, and how three years feels so immediately recent and yet a lifetime away. She held on for weeks beyond what they told us she would. It brought my family together in a way I should have expected, but didn’t. My brother and my cousin made silly videos of themselves dancing like monkeys to current pop songs and played them back for her; she laughed. When she became disoriented and tried to take out her oxygen tubes, they put straws up their nose and bent them back behind their ears so Amma wouldn’t be the only one with tubes. One picture shows them posing on either side of her hospice bed, luminous grins on their faces and yes, one on Amma’s, too.
This is what I thought of when I read Mr. Ebert’s tribute to his wife.
He recounted their life together, their travels; I thought of my amma and afi, just a couple of madly-in-love kids in Iceland, getting married so young. I thought how terrifying it must have been to give up their lives in Iceland and move their family to Africa for years to do mission work. But they loved it. They felt called. They had each other.
Amma lingered, as I said, for weeks. Her 54th wedding anniversary was April 1. She was lucid; Afi held her hand all day.
She died April 2.
I have been mulling whether to write about this all week. It is a personal story, but it is not mine. I decided to share it anyway–because yes, this is a blog about theatre, Chicago, and being a 20-something, but as Mr. Ebert so beautifully pointed out, love is like a wind forcing us back from the grave. Theatre is just something that can teach us about it. Chicago is where I found my love. And although I doubt my 20-something experience bears much similarity to either Mr. Ebert’s or my grandparents’, those stories inform my own.
Ég sakna þín, amma. I miss you.