Super Couple

Christopher and Dana Reeve of Bedford demonstrate what love can conquer.



Super Couple

 

Christopher and Dana Reeve of Bedford demonstrate what love can conquer

By Esther Davidowitz

 

Photography by Phillip Ennis

 

“What can we get you?” Christopher Reeve asks as I step into an airy alcove in the family’s unconventional farmhouse in Bedford. “Water?” he inquires. “Tea?” Wearing a pair of corduroy pants and a casual Gap-like sweater, Reeve sits tall in his wheelchair, surrounded by framed posters and photographs that capture some of his many career triumphs. There’s a poster from the first Superman movie, showing Reeve looking lean and muscular, one arm stretched heavenwards, legs poised to leap tall buildings. There’s a crisp black and white headshot in which a smiling twenty-something Reeve looks about as confident as any man can possibly be.

 

You could grow sad looking at those posters and photos. After all they document a life lived before “the injury.” You could grow sad knowing that Reeve can’t get you—or himself—a glass of water or a cup of tea, not since he was thrown headfirst from a horse during an equestrian competition in 1995. But you feel nothing of the sort—not after you’ve spent a bit of time with Christopher and his wife of ten years, Dana, an Edgemont High alum (class of ’79).

 

“I would say that there are not as many people as lucky as we are,” declares the 50-year-old father of three, speaking thoughtfully, slowly, with a ventilator strapped onto the back of his wheelchair. “Our relationship is constantly renewed. We never take each other for granted.  We do take our absolute commitment to each other for granted.”

A few days later, sitting in the family’s cozy living room in front of a large picture window that overlooks a lovely pond, Dana says: “Chris and I didn’t get married until we were completely sure we could take the vow ‘In sickness and in health.’ We’re making this journey together. We enjoy each other’s company and respect each other. Besides, he makes me laugh.”

 

 Indeed, Christopher and Dana Reeve seem to be so happy and so in love with each other (and with their family and the life they have built together) that you can’t help but feel a teeny bit jealous. And a lot inspired. And you can’t help but think about such admirable qualities as resilience, devotion and courage—qualities that the couple seems to have in spades.  You can’t help but wonder if you have them too, even if only a little bit.

Christopher, for one, doesn’t doubt that you do. He is sure that all of us have within us the right stuff—the inner resources to push ourselves to the max.  What often keeps us from actualizing our full potential, he says, is our poor self-esteem, our self-doubts.

 

“We are free to do whatever we want,” he says. “We paralyze ourselves by thinking we are not good enough, not good looking enough, not smart enough, our jobs are too hard. Those limiting concepts hold us back. And they shouldn’t. Paralysis,” he declares, “is a choice. You don’t need to end up in a wheelchair to find courage.”

 

There’s something else you realize after spending just a bit of time with Christopher Reeve: You realize you’re in the presence of a very wise and very bright man. His wife can vouch for that. Indeed, Dana, her long auburn hair swept back from her pretty makeup-free face, confides that it was Christopher’s brainpower that most attracted her to him. “I fell for his mind,” she says. 

 

It’s been 15 years since the couple met, ten years since they married, and seven years since he became a vent-dependent quadriplegic. The biggest and best news perhaps, news that millions of Americans got to see on their television screens this past fall, thanks to a documentary filmed by Christopher’s 23-year-old son, Matthew, is that Christopher can now move the thumb and index finger in his left hand. He can also breathe on his own for five-, ten- and 20-minute segments for a total duration of 90 minutes. And he apparently can feel things now, like his wife’s touch and his kids’ hugs. (He has three children: Brown alum and filmmaker Matthew, and 19-year-old Alexandra,
a Yale sophomore, products of Christopher’s previous relationship, and Will, 10, his and Dana’s only child.) Christopher can do all this, despite being told by doctors that he would never breathe independently or regain any motor ability.

 

Apparently no one who has suffered such an acute injury as he has ever gotten back so much motor and sensory function. But then very few quadriplegics have ever exercised as long and as assiduously as he has. “All the exercise I’ve done has reawakened dormant pathways,” Christopher explains. Unless work or travel obligations arise, he exercises from one and a half to three and a half hours every day—which is something else you quickly learn after spending a bit of time with Christopher Reeve: He is a very disciplined man. Indeed, he credits much of his near-miraculous  progress to self-discipline, something he says he had to learn as an actor.

 

“Acting is a very difficult profession. It requires so much discipline.” Case in point: When working on the first Superman movie, to get and stay in shape, he had to weight train every day for two hours, often after long, long days at the studio rehearsing. There were many nights when he didn’t relish the thought of pumping iron. “But I had an agreement with my driver,” Christopher says. “I told him: ‘Even if I say take me home, take me to the gym anyway.’”

 

He continues: “I tell young people, Don’t become an actor unless you absolutely have to. As an actor you face constant rejection. If you do get a part, you have to have the discipline to research the role, keep your body in tune. You have to make the commitment to give your very best, perform eight times a week, often when you don’t feel like it. Thirty-plus years doing that have really helped me cope with the injury and to lead a productive life.”

 

A very productive life. Since the injury, he has written two books: the best-selling Still Me followed by the recently published Nothing Is Impossible. He has directed and/or produced a few movies. And he has become a tireless champion for the disabled. (“I’ve always been politically active,” he notes. “I protested the invasion of Cambodia. I attended the first Earth Day.”) He also founded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation and today serves as vice chairman of the National Organization on Disability, advocating for health care reform and funding for research, particularly stem cell research and therapeutic cloning. “One of my jobs is to demystify the words,” he says. “The idea that you can take a human egg when it’s only a cluster of cells and derive stem cells that potentially can cure Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, ALS and spinal cord injuries is a potential miracle.

 

“Right now,” he continues, “there are one hundred million Americans suffering from supposedly incurable diseases, fifty-four million with disabilities. Something has to be done about it, just on moral grounds.”

 

Dana too has become active. “I used to help with AIDS, homeless groups, etc.,” she says. Now she is active fighting for “quality of life issues for the disabled.” She declares: “Disability is something you get involved with when it touches your life.”

 

It touched their lives one sunny Saturday afternoon. The date was May 27, 1995, and Christopher, who loved to be physically active—he skied, he sailed, he played tennis, he even flew his own planes—was doing what had become his latest passion: horseback-riding. On this fateful day, he was riding a well-trained thoroughbred in an equestrian competition in Virginia, feeling confident and qualified. “As an actor, I had the freedom to train five days a week. The public tends to think that celebrities pursue hobbies without being properly qualified. In my case, I trained just as hard as every other rider on the course that day.” Inexplicably, the horse stopped dead in her tracks, throwing the 6’4”, 215-pound actor headfirst onto the ground. His spinal cord snapped, just centimeters below his brain stem. The tragic fall stunned nearly everyone, but most of all, it seems, Christopher himself. “I was doing something quite perfunctory, quite routine,” he says. “It’s not as if I was trying to jump the Grand Canyon on a motorcycle.”

 

He wasn’t expected to live. And for a time, he wasn’t sure he wanted to. “Frankly I felt very guilty sustaining an injury that would impact all our lives.”  So Dana made a deal with her husband.  “Wait two years,” she told him, “and if you still feel the same, somehow we’ll find a way to let you go.”

 

Says Christopher: “There was never any question in Dana’s mind about bailing out. I had to get over the guilt. Dana really helped set me free from the power of my own demons of self incrimination, guilt and plain embarrassment.”

 

Says Dana, “I learned that I had the strength to cope with this genuinely. I didn’t have to try. It came naturally.”  She then adds: “The picture changed, but it’s still us.”

Still, life has changed radically for the Reeves. “We have a new definition of normal,” Dana says. For one thing, they are never home alone. They employ a staff of 15. There’s a nurse ’round the clock. And every morning and every night, a fireman is summoned to get Christopher in and out of bed. “I had to buy pajamas,” Dana says.

 

And she had to get used to always having people around. “Now I can’t imagine life without them. They’ve become an extended family. And Will enjoys it. The more people, the merrier.”

 

Still sometimes she grows nostalgic. “I miss different things at different times,” she says. The other day, when someone gave her a shoulder rub, she realized how much she misses getting Christopher’s shoulder rubs. “Sometimes it’s the little things you miss most.”

Still, she and Christopher are happy, real happy. “We make sure the other person is happy and satisfied,” she says. Dana notes that even though she knows that her husband would rather have her home with him than off performing in some play, he is, “very generous about my work,” she says. “He encourages me to pursue my career. Ironically, I want to pursue it less and I want to be home more because I’ve got such a great guy.”

 

And what about Christopher? Does he ever get down? “Sure,” he answers.  “But when I do, I choose action. That’s the best way out. That might mean reaching out to a friend or organizing something spontaneous like going into the city. Or it might mean writing to friends. The real danger is to park yourself someplace and just stew in your own juices. You can always change the energy. That’s true whether you’re on your feet or in a wheelchair.”

 

It is time to leave the Reeve’s home. Christopher has another “appointment,” and Dana has to rush off to pick up Will from school. You say good-bye and take your leave. As you drive away, you find yourself feeling surprisingly happy, as if you can do just about anything. You find yourself feeling that, corny as it sounds, nothing is impossible.

 

 

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