Roger Ebert with reconstructed jawOn the off chance that anyone is unfamiliar with Roger Ebert, I'll remind you of his accomplishments. Film critic for the Chicago Sun-Times since 1967, co-host of three television programs on movies for a combined 29 years, guest lecturer on film at the University of Chicago, and founder of Ebertfest, a festival for overlooked films, Roger Ebert is the beating heart of film criticism in America. If you have any regard at all for movies, he is an inescapable presence.

In 2002, Ebert was diagnosed with papillary thyroid cancer and underwent radiation therapy as well as a series of surgeries to address the disease. The physical toll of the treatment was considerable. His jaw was reconstructed several times over as transplant after transplant failed to take. On July 1, 2006, Ebert's carotid artery burst, nearly killing him.

Today, Mr. Ebert cannot eat, drink, or speak. He uses a feeding tube and communicates by writing notes. Yet, in a recent Esquire profile, Ebert remains an engaging, indefatigable, and upbeat presence. You see, as the piece describes, the internet has allowed Ebert to retain his self expression.

After his near-death experience in 2006, Mr. Ebert tentatively returned to written film criticism on May 18, 2007. He resumed a regular schedule by the end of the year. Although Ebert's surgeries had taken such a considerable physical toll -- doctors had removed tissue from his back, arm, and legs in attempts to reconstruct his jaw -- that Ebert had difficulty being active, he soon found a comforting outlet in his blog and Twitter account. As the Esquire article describes, these resources became Ebert's lifeline:

C-O-M-C-A-S-T, he writes on his palm to Chaz after they've stopped on the way back from the movie to go for a walk.

"Comcast?" she says, before she realizes - he's just reminded her that people from Comcast are coming over to their Lincoln Park brownstone not long from now, because their Internet has been down for three days, and for Ebert, that's the equivalent of being buried alive: C-O-M-C-A-S-T.
Although a website compiling Mr. Ebert's work had been maintained for years, it was not until after the disastrous results of his surgeries that Ebert started to blog in earnest. His foray into the internet began slowly, but Ebert's blog soon became an involved project with a passionate body of followers. The blog also became something much more important: a place for Ebert's stolen voice to exist passionately, articulately, and completely:
Reading [Ebert's blog] from its beginning is like watching an Aztec pyramid being built. At first, it's just a vessel for him to apologize to his fans for not being downstate. The original entries are short updates about his life and health and a few of his heart's wishes. Postcards and pebbles. They're followed by a smattering of Welcomes to Cyberspace. But slowly the journal picks up steam, as Ebert's strength and confidence and audience grow. You are the readers I have dreamed of, he writes. He is emboldened. He begins to write about more than movies; in fact, it sometimes seems as though he'd rather write about anything other than movies. The existence of an afterlife, the beauty of a full bookshelf, his liberalism and atheism and alcoholism, the health-care debate, Darwin, memories of departed friends and fights won and lost - more than five hundred thousand words of inner monologue have poured out of him, five hundred thousand words that probably wouldn't exist had he kept his other voice. Now some of his entries have thousands of comments, each of which he vets personally and to which he will often respond. It has become his life's work, building and maintaining this massive monument to written debate - argument is encouraged, so long as it's civil - and he spends several hours each night reclined in his chair, tending to his online oasis by lamplight. Out there, his voice is still his voice - not a reasonable facsimile of it, but his.
It is undoubtedly Mr. Ebert's intelligence, decency, and enthusiasm for life that have pulled him through this difficult time in his life. Not everyone could maintain such abundant joy at life's richness after enduring such an ordeal, but Ebert seems to have done so:
There is no need to pity me, he writes on a scrap of paper one afternoon after someone parting looks at him a little sadly. Look how happy I am.
But, surely Ebert's continued satisfaction with life can also be attributed to his continued ability to express himself authentically. I'm glad that a medium -- the internet -- exists that allows Ebert the freedom to be himself. He and, indeed, the rest of us, are fortunate for that.

Good luck to you, Roger. You've affected my life -- and many others -- very deeply. I hope you continue to do so for a long time to come.

[EDIT: Roger also wrote a follow-up to the Esquire piece on his own blog. Make sure you check that out, as well.]