Their Father's Fight

updated 11/13/2006 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/13/2006 01:00AM

In the final days before losing her battle with lung cancer last March, Dana Reeve, the widow of Superman actor Christopher Reeve, summoned her longtime friend Peter Kiernan to her bedside at a Manhattan hospital. She asked him to take over the foundation her paralyzed husband had founded and asked that their son Will, then 13, not feel pressure to contribute to the family's work. "I do not want Will's teenage years to be usurped by this," Kiernan recalls Dana saying. "He's got a huge heart. He is going to want to help. It's fine to help, but I want him to have a teenage boy's life." Dana's thoughts then turned to her husband's children from his previous relationship, Matthew and Alexandra Reeve, whom she always considered part of her family: "I do not want them to feel like their sole mission in life is to carry on their father's legacy."

Eight months after Dana's death on March 6, her wishes are being fulfilled. Now in her second year at Columbia Law School in New York City, Alexandra Reeve, 22, is interested in litigation, and her older brother Matthew, 26, a filmmaker, is working on a documentary. Both also serve on the board of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, founded by their father after his devastating 1995 horse-riding accident to fund research for cures and therapies for paralysis. "Our dad's accident really did connect us to this community: 4 million people in the U.S. who are suffering from paralysis," says Alexandra. "We understand how important it is not only to find a cure but also to improve quality of life."

On Nov. 6 the pair will join their stepbrother Will Reeve, now 14, an accomplished athlete who started a new school this fall, onstage at the foundation's annual gala in Manhattan. According to Alexandra, "Will's doing well. He loves school. He is playing hockey and football and keeping busy with friends." Noting the Reeve siblings are in daily contact, Robert Kennedy Jr., a family friend, says Alexandra and Matthew have become "surrogate parents" to Will. "They have the same jut-jawed determination as their father."

Growing up as the children of Superman, the Reeves had a life filled with their father's love of all things athletic, including sailing, skiing and biking. "Hiking was one of the more relaxing activities we did," Matthew says of the years spent in Massachusetts and London, home to their mother, British mental health counselor Gae Exton, whose nearly 10-year relationship with Reeve ended in 1987. But the defining moment of life with their dad, of course, was the accident 11 years ago that left him paralyzed from the neck down. Alexandra recalls when Christopher first learned to use his motorized wheelchair. "We had to follow him around with a panel called the 'kill switch,' in case he sped off in the wrong direction and went crashing into the wall," she says. "We couldn't even keep up with him; he'd be flying down the hallways, doing wheelies."

Finding a cure for paralysis became a family obsession, excitedly discussed even if Dana, a talented cook, declared a ban on medical talk during dinner. Says Matthew: "She had a hard time enforcing it. Once Dad got going, it was hard to stop him." Today, keeping that excitement alive is just one way of remembering Christopher and Dana. Matthew recalls attending a foundation meeting at which a 3-year-old boy burst into the room; he had recovered the ability to walk with a walker with treadmill therapy funded by the group. Christopher Reeve, Matthew says, would have been proud. "It just really drove home what we are all trying to do."

The Reeve foundation offers extensive information on many aspects of paralysis at WWW.CHRISTOPHERREEVE.ORG.

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