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- October 25, 2004
- Vol. 63
- No. 17
Incredible Journey: 1952-2004
Facing Tragedy, Christopher Reeve Inspired the World with Hope and a Lesson in Courage
Another actress from the cast, Mimi Lieber, found her there alone, "and she looked bad. She said in a very panicked voice, 'Something's wrong at home.' He had already been taken to the hospital. She was trembling but she stayed focused. She asked, 'Do I need to get a plane?' And the nurse on the phone said yes. She asked, 'Could he die?' And the nurse said yes. And then she asked, 'Do I need to call the kids?' And the nurse said yes." Those were three questions that had never been answered in the affirmative in the nine years of many, many hospitalizations. Says Lieber: "The first good news came from Alexandra"—Reeve's daughter, 20, a Yale undergraduate, who got to the hospital soon after her father was hospitalized at midnight. "His eyes flickered when she spoke to him. Dana breathed for the first time at that point." Meanwhile, Will, her 12-year-old son with Reeve, had been taken in by neighbors. Son Matthew, 24, a documentary filmmaker, was flying in from London with his and Alexandra's mother, Gae Exton, 52, a British modeling agent. By Sunday afternoon, Oct. 10, "the family was gathered," says Exton, who remained close to Reeve after their nine-year relationship ended in 1987. Says Lieber: "The good news is Dana made it. I think he waited for her."
Reeve died at 5:20 p.m. of cardiac failure, brought on by a raging infection that had spread from a bed sore.
And yet the night before had been, for Reeve, a typical one. He watched Will's hockey game not far from home. ("He tried to go to all of Will's sporting events," says Reeve's longtime friend, photographer Ken Regan.) Then the two had been driven back to the house and watched the Yankees-Twins game. Now on Tuesday, Oct. 12, the family, including his father, Frank Reeve, a writer, and mother, Barbara Johnson, now remarried, assembled there for a private memorial, along with friends like Robin Williams and Robert Kennedy Jr. "The stories people told were all uplifting and powerful," says one friend who attended.
All had come to acknowledge Reeve's heroic tugging against—defiance of—the terrible, mortal restrictions that had affected his life ever since the accident shattered the top of his spine nearly 10 years ago. "He wanted to make his mark," says actress Blair Brown, a friend for many years. "Now it's indelible."
Once upon a time the Princeton native had stood 6'4" tall and, with his athletic poise, piloted yachts; with a chiseled face that was almost impossibly handsome, he embodied Superman in four movies, starting in 1978 at age 26. Leap across the years: Here is a middle-aged man strapped into a wheelchair, never able to live completely free from a respirator. This second Reeve, though, was the one who let loose: berated lawmakers, sought out scientists, raised money for stem-cell and other research and argued for insurance reform. He may even have established medical precedents. He regained physical sensations (including touch and smell) and even limited movements that defy medical wisdom. "Chris had far greater challenges than I've faced, and faced them with a courage, intelligence and a dignity I can only aspire to," says friend Michael J. Fox, who has Parkinson's disease. "If he could ever have walked, he would have walked over to help someone else get up."
What else? He spoke at the 1996 Oscars. He wrote two bestselling memoirs, directed TV movies (1997's In the Gloaming) and even acted (in a TV remake of Rear Window, for which he won a Screen Actors Guild award, and Smallville, The WB's teenage Superman series). The odds against him were beyond grim: Of 11,000 people with spinal cord injuries, only 250 patients with Reeve's sort of catastrophic broken vertebrae survive, and those that do live on average seven years. And yet, he said in a BBC interview conducted recently, "I've just decided I won't listen to the rules. I mean, how many people are walking around who have been told by a doctor that, 'Oh, I'm sorry, you've got six months to live'? It's just a hell of a lot harder than I'd thought it was going to be—but that's no excuse. You just have to keep going." Just last summer he was down in New Orleans in 100°F heat to direct The Brooke Ellison Story, a fact-based A&E film about a woman paralyzed by a spinal-cord injury. Even with a rotating staff of nurses, he put in full days. "He was right on top of every little detail," says Lacey Chabert, who stars in the film. "There were obvious physical limitations, but there were no creative limitations."
Two days before Reeve died, his name even surfaced as a surprise litmus test in the second presidential debate, when Sen. John Kerry cited Reeve while discussing stem-cell research. Reeve, says the senator, left him a voice-mail message. "He was very excited," says Kerry, who first met Reeve in the early '90s. Kerry has since spoken with Reeve's widow, "and she sounded wonderfully courageous. Some laughter and some good feelings about just what a special guy he was." Even Reeve's political opponents sent condolences; President and Mrs. Bush issued a statement: "Mr. Reeve was an example of personal courage, optimism, and self-determination."
Indeed, he made the claim in 2001 that his life was a good one: "I'm not living the life I thought I would lead... but it does have meaning, purpose. There is love, there is joy, there is laughter." There was also some clear-eyed insight into the world. "I get pretty impatient," he once said, "with people who are able-bodied but are somehow paralyzed for other reasons."
Even before the accident, Reeve hadn't been in that crowd. After Superman made him a star in 1978, he was furiously energetic, impressing other stars with a vigorous intelligence that easily mastered all sorts of political and social causes. "He was thoughtful, forceful, with boundless energy," recalls Blair Brown. Then one night in May 1995, she recalls, "he said, 'I'm going to Virginia to ride and I'll be back....' "
Five days after the accident—his horse shied from a fence, and Reeve was pitched forward onto his forehead—he awoke at the University of Virginia Medical Center to be told he could never again have any movement below his neck. He later recalled that he thought of simply letting go of life altogether—until Dana uttered the words that he said saved him. "You're still you, and I love you." So began a new life with his family. For Reeve, "an ideal day" was "when all three kids are here," at his ramp-accessorized home in rural Bedford, N.Y. The greatest challenge, perhaps, was raising Will. Reeve taught him to ride a bike strictly through verbal coaching. "One basic principle in my approach to being Will's dad is I want to set him free," he said. "I want him to be a kid so when he goes out of the house every morning he's not worried about the old man." But he couldn't pretend that he hadn't been cut off from many of the joys of parenting. His inability to actively raise his children, he wrote, was the reason he and Dana decided not to have any more. "It would be too painful," he wrote, "not to be able to hold and embrace this little creature."
Ever the actor, he hid other pains from the public—from pneumonia to a skin ulcer so infected doctors once considered amputating his leg. And yet he kept going, one of the most sought-after speakers in the country. "The price to him for the work that he did, he would never tell you how much it cost him," says Michael J. Fox. "It cost him tremendously." In the end, "every single function in the body is compromised" by such an injury, says Susan Howley, executive vice president and director of research of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation. "And eventually the body just reaches a point where it can't fight anymore. His heart just gave out."
That heart carried him—and so many others—to new realms of hope. His friend Ken Regan recalls that in the exercise room at Reeve's home, where he logged so many hours of physical therapy, he hung a sign—a promise to himself and a challenge to the world: "For everyone who thought I couldn't do it. For everyone who thought I shouldn't do it. For everyone who said, 'It's impossible.' See you at the finish line!"
Tom Gliatto, Samantha Miller, Michelle Tauber and Jason Lynch. Reported by Allison Adato, K.C. Baker, Vickie Bane, Giovanna Breujom Cunneff, Mark Dagostino, Michael Fleeman, Mary Green, Herb Keinon, Vicky Moon, Macon Morehouse, Rebecca Paley, Barbara Sandler, Fannie Weinstein and Ulrica Wihlborg
- Allison Adato,
- K.C. Baker,
- Vickie Bane,
- Giovanna Breu,
- Tom Cunneff,
- Mark Dagostino,
- Michael Fleeman,
- Mary Green,
- Herb Keinon,
- Vicky Moon,
- Macon Morehouse,
- Rebecca Paley,
- Barbara Sandler,
- Fannie Weinstein,
- Ulrica Wihlborg.
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