I’d been a Roger Ebert groupie forever when the unimaginable happened — he and I ended up together, just the two of us, alone in an upstairs room.
What was to me a momentous occasion took place in LaPorte, Indiana, where I had gone to buy a Mother’s Day gift. As I browsed on the second floor of a small antique store, two men came up the stairs. After a brief conversation, one of them headed back downstairs while the other stayed behind.
In that quiet, dusty attic space, as the man I had idolized for years flipped through a stack of oversized newspaper pages, I nervously considered how to approach him. Say, “Hello, sorry to interrupt, but I’m a big fan of yours.” Or perhaps, “Hello, sorry to interrupt, just wanted to say I think you’re a genius and I appreciate all that you do.” Or maybe blurt out, “Roger, you don’t know me and probably could not care less, but I wanted you to know that I adore you and would be happy to have your baby.”
I am not generally star-struck. But when faced with a presence whose writing had brought me years of delight, whose wit, humor, erudition and passion had given me a new appreciation for how a motion picture, while perhaps worth more than a thousand words, could never be as good as the words he wrote about it, I was rendered speechless.
And when, on Thursday, I opened my browser to check on breaking news and was faced with the headline that Roger Ebert had died, I was rendered temporarily blind, as tears filled my eyes.
How is it, I wondered later that day, that the death of someone we have no true relationship with affects us so profoundly? I remember seeing my classroom teacher begin to cry, as he told us that John F. Kennedy had been killed. And being at a party the night it was announced that Princess Diana had died, and a friend, her face whitening with shock, began to weep. And seeing on the news the grief-stricken faces of people reacting to the news of any number of deaths: rock stars, actors, astronauts, civil rights leaders, presidents and, yes, even famous dogs and horses.
It struck me that Roger, who seemed to understand the human condition far better than most, would know why. “We must try to contribute joy to the world,” he wrote in a column talking about death. “That is true no matter what our problems, our health, our circumstances. We must try.”
That, I think, is why the deaths of luminaries make us cry. In some way, they have given us joy, and we realize, when they pass on, that they can no longer share their particular magic. Our tears express sadness for them, yes, because a life has ended, but the sadness is also for ourselves.
So I am sad. Roger Ebert has died, and I will miss him. I never got to share with him how much I appreciated his gift, the delight I felt in reading his words, hearing his opinions, pondering his convictions, even though I had my chance and didn’t say a thing. Small matter, that. Any words I might have said would not have changed either of our lives.
He did, however, change my life, as he changed the lives of many. For when Roger, amazing, brilliant, creative Roger, sent his words into the world, he brought us joy. Now, as is his due, he has brought us tears.
Carol Schaal is managing editor of_ Notre Dame Magazine. Email her at email@example.com.