A popular actress of stage and television, Dana Reeve was beloved in a myriad of roles yet no scripted role could ever elicit such stunning range--of endurance, courage, grace, and grit--as she came to assume in real life. We all watched the fairy tale unfold: Golden Girl meets Golden Boy; they marry and get that rare chance to live out the sort of picture-perfect existence normally reserved for the silver screen. He was the quintessential romantic leading man, she a gorgeous and talented actress in her own right; they were the couple who literally had it all.
Most married couples vow to remain true to their spouse both in sickness and in health, yet it is hard to imagine the sickness part--especially if your spouse plays Superman. Yet this fairy tale took a tragic turn when a fall from a horse left Christopher Reeve paralyzed from the neck down. We watched in awe as he rose again to great heights: acting, directing, championing the rights of those with disabilities, and tirelessly pushing the frontiers of medicine to find a cure. Where did he find such strength?
Christopher Reeve often credited his wife, Dana, with having given him the strength to rise to the unimaginable challenges he faced after his accident. Through it all, Dana Reeve remained a steadfast and loving wife and mother, while also assuming a pivotal new role as a motivational speaker and activist on behalf of the disabled and stem cell research.
Reeve cofounded the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which funds scientists working in spinal cord research, awards money through its Quality of Life Grants program to organizations that improve the daily life of the disabled, and provides information and support to the paralyzed community through the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Resource Center, and acted as Chair after her husband's death in 2004. She authored the bestselling book Carepackages: Letters from Strangers and Other Friends, and narrated the audio version of Dewey Doo-It Helps Owlie Fly Again, the children's book inspired by her husband.
Sadly, Dana Reeve lost the battle for her own life in early 2006, when she died of lung cancer. We are grateful that she contributed the following essay, based on a phone interview with her in 2005. Her words, and the Reeves' legacy of strength, compassion, and resourcefulness, live on.
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by Dana Reeve
The hero of my life was, is, and forever shall be my husband, Christopher. Chris is a hero to me for all the reasons that he was a hero to other people. Like everyone else, I admired his courage, his perseverance, the way he handled adversity with grace, and his commitment to better the world in which we live. I was privileged to know him in a more private context as well, where his heroism extended to the way he treated his family and the people closest to him. And I observed at what tremendous cost that courage and perseverance came.
Before his injury, I would have said that Chris was not my hero as much as he was my husband, my friend, my confidant, my lover, my partner, and the father of our child. In many ways he changed after the accident; we both did. Luckily, he was always remarkably open to change, and able to evolve and to adapt in ways that not everybody can. But the personal qualities that enabled him to rise to the challenges he was presented with--not just living with his own disability, but becoming an advocate for all disabled people and a powerful force for change--those qualities were always there. In fact, they were many of the reasons why I fell in love with him in the first place.
The public's response to Chris's injury allowed me to step back a bit, so I could see a little more objectively what a truly great man he was. People were often surprised by how much energy he had for all his advocacy efforts, such as the Christopher Reeve Foundation--an enterprise we founded together--in addition to his work as an actor and director. He was an incredible achiever. He was always someone who set the highest standards for himself. When he pursued something, he pursued it fully, and when he decided he was going to do something, he did it at the highest possible level. This was true in every area of his life, including recreation; when you went sailing with Chris, you didn't just float around. For him, enjoyment and satisfaction came from setting goals and achieving them, from doing things well.
Chris was always a natural leader. After his accident, people started turning to him for answers and support--even people who had been injured and had been living with a disability for a long time. Although life with a disability was new territory for Chris, and for me, he was suddenly thrust into the role that he would thrive in--acting as a source of true inspiration and information.
Chris's strength, courage, forthrightness, and natural leadership skills--the same qualities, in fact, that made him so utterly convincing as Superman--served as guides for us and many others as we navigated the challenging roads of living with a disability.
Dana, with husband Chris, and son Will. (AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes)
After the injury, some of the challenges Chris faced on a daily basis were pretty significant, bigger than most people face in a lifetime. But Chris took a very proactive approach to those challenges and viewed them simply as problems to be solved. I think this problem-solving mind-set was really what kick-started his activism. He had always lent his support to causes he believed in, including a lot of environmental work as well as appearances for the Special Olympics, Save the Children, and organizations to fund pediatric AIDS research. The work he did in the nine and a half years following his accident has had an enormous impact on the lives of the disabled in this country and around the world.
That work in good measure all grew out of the question that gnawed at him: "I've got a big problem here. How do I get out of this?" Very quickly, "How do I get out of this," turned into action: "Who do we talk to? Who do we lobby? Whose research can we fund? How can I make a difference in other people's lives?"
I derived a tremendous amount of strength from him, and as a couple, we depended equally on each other. Everyone will face some kind of loss or adversity in their life, at some time or other, and often it can completely derail a relationship. People tend to be both surprised and encouraged by the fact that our marriage was so strong. We had a powerful sense of commitment to one another and that was fueled by deep love, mutual respect, optimism, and the ability to change with each other's changes.
Maybe the most influential factor was that Chris never stopped participating as a full partner in our marriage. It was a conscious effort made by both of us; we started talking about it was when he was still in rehab. As loving as our relationship was, we had always been very healthily demanding of one another in terms of making sure that the other person was meeting the other's needs in the relationship. As much as possible, we didn't let that change after the accident. Although I was a caregiver to Chris, I was his wife first, and Chris worked hard to be the best possible husband to me. I believe that's heroic in and of itself and just one example of the heroism he brought to ordinary, daily life.
Chris was a heroic father as well. No matter how he felt, physically or emotionally, he protected his children, allowing them to live their lives without the burden of worrying about him. Despite the difficulties that challenged Chris daily, he remained a powerful and positive role model in his childrens lives.
Chris continues to inspire me every day, even now that he's gone. When he died, the board of directors asked me to step in to take over the chairmanship of the Christopher Reeve Foundation. That had always been Chris's job, a job I had neve aspired to, and to be honest, I was initially ambivalent about taking it. But a friend of mine said to me, "You know, Chris didn't want to be paralyzed, but look what he did with what was handed to him. Use him as your motivating force." My friend was right. The work Chris started is too important to stop now; and I have taken on the to make sure that the momentum he built doesn't peter out. The Christopher Reeve Foundation will continue funding the best scientists, and the Christopher and Dana Reeve Paralysis Research Center will continue to provide information and answers to the many questions and difficulties that arise when living with paralysis.
To me, the fact that Chris got out of bed every day at all was heroic when you consider that simply breathing was a luxury for him. Although he was forced into stillness, he never stopped going forward. Chris taught me to see that a tragedy can also reveal unknown wells of strength and how that strength, in turn, can lead to unexpected opportunities to create a life deep with meaning and worth. What a tremendous gift he left for me--and all of us. Christopher Reeve is my hero.
Page created on 9/25/2006 12:00:00 AM
Last edited 8/28/2018 2:09:27 AM
The beliefs, viewpoints and opinions expressed in this hero submission on the website are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the beliefs, viewpoints and opinions of The MY HERO Project and its staff.
Copyright 2005 by The MY HERO Project
MY HERO thanks Dana Reeve for contributing this essay to My Hero: Extraordinary People on the Heroes Who Inspire Them.
Thanks to Free Press for reprint rights of the above material.