The Legacy of Christopher and Dana Reeve
Matthew Reeve recently witnessed a thrilling sight. During a visit to the Kessler Institute for Rehabilitation, where his father, the late Christopher Reeve, had been treated after becoming paralyzed in a horse-riding accident, he watched a patient take his first steps. "This guy hadn't walked in eight years," says Matthew, smiling. "It was gratifying to see how far the treatment has come. It was a lovely moment."
Matthew's younger sister, Alexandra Reeve Givens, explains that her dad was an "early pioneer" in the treadmill-walking therapy that helped this patient get back on his feet. Now she and her brother are board members of the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, where they have been working for the past five years to expand access to this therapy and encourage insurance companies to pay for it. "How do you give people hope after they've gone through an accident?" Alexandra asks. "That's what we see as Dad's legacy, giving other people hope."
The Reeve children -- Matthew, 31, Alexandra, 27, and Will, 19 -- have all come through a wrenching family drama. But they are determined to show the world that life not only goes on after a trauma but can also be highly productive. It's a lesson that they learned from their father: Even while confined to a wheelchair and breathing through a ventilator, Christopher Reeve continued to work for nine years as an actor, director, and tireless lobbyist and fund-raiser for the disabled until his sudden death from cardiac arrest in 2004. "It was a real surprise," Alexandra says quietly. "It was unexpected."
The next shock for the family came 10 months later, when Dana Reeve, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer. She died at age 44 in 2006, leaving the couple's then 13-year-old son Will an orphan (Matthew and Alexandra's mother is former British modeling executive Gae Exton, who split with Reeve in 1987).
"Today Will is flourishing," says Alexandra, a New York City lawyer. "He's a college freshman and plays hockey. He's a movie buff and is doing well at school -- he's a well-rounded, great kid." Matthew, who is a graduate student in filmmaking and business at New York University, interrupts her: "You can't call him a kid anymore -- he's taller than all of us! He's 6-foot-3, I'm 6-foot-2, and Alexandra's 6 feet."
For all the tragedy in their lives, the two older Reeve siblings appear surprisingly upbeat and resilient, talking over breakfast at a Manhattan restaurant. (Will was away at college and unavailable for the interview.) Rather than dwell on their losses, they would rather reminisce about good times with their father and discuss their commitment to continuing the family tradition of advocacy. "You have to be grateful for what you have and make the most of it," says Alexandra. "We were privileged to witness Dad's strength and courage on a day-to-day basis," adds Matthew. "We learned by watching him cope so well."
The Reeve children were raised in England but spent their vacations and summers visiting their father, often joining him on film sets and snagging bit parts. ("In Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, my character's name was 'Girl blown away in tornado,'" recalls Alexandra. "I was 3.") Their newly single father was working at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the summer of 1987 when he met singer and actress Dana Morosini; his children quickly approved. As Reeve wrote in his autobiography, Still Me, "When I saw Dana's natural ability and ease with the kids, and her sense of fun, I was relieved and thrilled that something that worked for me also worked for them." The couple married in April 1992 and Will was born that June. "Dana was a wonderful, warm person," recalls Alexandra. "I don't remember a time in my life without her around." (To show their gratitude to their stepmother, Matthew and Alexandra added Dana to the foundation's name after her death.)
Their childhood memories of their father centered on the outdoors: riding horses, sailing, skiing. "He was incredibly active," says Alexandra, "always racing around from sport to sport and pushing himself." But that athleticism came to a tragic end on May 27, 1995, when Reeve's horse balked at a jump: He was thrown from the saddle and landed on his head; when he awoke he was paralyzed from the neck down. Reeve considered suicide but subsequently said that the unequivocal reaction of his wife and children -- they loved him no matter what -- changed the equation. "We still had him and had him around as our parent," says Alexandra, who was 11 at the time. "He stayed alive to be there for us. We learned at a very young age to seize every moment to be happy."
Yet their relationships all changed, as the family had to find new ways to relate to one another. Instead of marathon physical activities, they'd conduct four-hour heart-to-heart conversations on a Saturday afternoon. "There's not much time to talk when you're skiing down a mountain or riding a bike," says Matthew, who was 15 when Reeve got hurt. "But if you're in the living room just talking and being together, it's inevitable that you get closer. Dad became more introspective and philosophical." Matthew smiles. "He became contemplative."
Able to pilot his own wheelchair via a breathing mechanism, Reeve could still travel and often accompanied his kids to movies and museums, watching Will's Little League games and Alexandra's equestrian events. Despite what he'd been through, he didn't want his daughter to be fearful. "It wasn't the horse's fault, it was a freak accident," she says. "My dad wanted me to be careful, but he realized that life is short and you have to enjoy what you can."
Of course there were tough moments, watching how limited their father was in so many ways. "One year our dog Bonnie died and I went upstairs to my room to cry," says Alexandra. "About 20 minutes passed and Dad's nurse came upstairs and said, 'Your dad really wants to talk to you.' I told her no, that I just wanted to cry. Then the nurse said, 'He can't come to you.' It was one of those moments when I realized any other parent would come upstairs and just sit with their kid. But I should go downstairs so I could sit with him."
Humor offered an outlet for the family. At a novelty shop, Matthew spied a keyboard-style eject key and gave it to his father, who thought it was hilarious. When Matthew suggested taping it to his father's wheelchair, Reeve replied, "Absolutely," and then added, "I just wish it worked."
After Reeve's death, Dana's illness progressed rapidly and she worried that the foundation might be a burden for her stepchildren and son. Her longtime friend Peter Kiernan III, a Reeve Foundation board member, recalls getting a call from Dana in March 2006 asking to meet with him. "I said, 'How's next week?' She said, 'How about today?'" He asked where they should meet and she replied, "Memorial Sloan-Kettering," the cancer hospital. "I walked into the room and it was obvious she was in tough shape," he recalls. She asked him to take over the foundation, saying, "I want Ali to be able to finish college and Matthew to do his thing, and Will to be able to grow up and be a teenage boy without having their lives usurped by this board." Kiernan asked whether he could think about it, but Dana insisted on a commitment that very moment. Kiernan agreed to take the job. "A day later," he says, "she was gone."
According to Kiernan, the Reeve kids were eager to be involved in the foundation. "They may be younger than the other board members," he says, "but paralysis was the family business, it's what they discussed around the dinner table." Since joining the board in 2006, Alexandra and Matthew have participated in several fund-raising initiatives and launched the Champions Committee, which holds events throughout the year to raise money from younger philanthropists. They also give speeches around the country and travel to Washington to meet with legislators. Will, meanwhile, is a guest speaker at the yearly galas. "Some of my fondest memories of our family take place in our driveway, where I'm running around playing one sport or another," Will told the crowd at the 2010 fundraising dinner. "Dad's watching me with a smile the size of Texas on his face, and Mom has her hands around Dad's shoulders....That is the most important thing that a family struggling with a member's disability can do: Try to make life as normal as possible."
The Reeve Foundation hopes to help others reach that goal. To date it has invested $90 million ($76 million of which was raised after Dana's death) toward medical research for spinal cord injuries and offers peer and family support groups. "That's one of the reasons we wanted to be so involved," says Alexandra. "When a trauma happens in your life, people don't know where to turn." The foundation has also funded the research for treadmill-walking therapy used at seven rehabilitation centers in the United States, and they would like to expand it nationwide. "Dana was always about care and improving the quality of life in the here and now," says Alexandra. "But my father was focused on the medical research."
Even today Christopher Reeve remains a quiet, constant presence: They can still hear his voice. In 2009 Matthew ran the New York City Marathon as part of Team Reeve, a fund-raising program for the foundation. He trained for six grueling months in advance, even though he has never liked running and had always made that clear to his dad. As he slogged through the 26.2-mile course, exhausted and achy, he imagined how his father would react. "He'd be thinking, 'That's Matthew? What is he doing?' Dad would be laughing, he'd be shocked!" Matthew says. That image of his father -- laughing and beaming with pride -- carried him to the finish line.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, July 2011.