May 11, 2005 in Features

Super mission

Donna Freydkin USA Today
 
Associated Press photo

Dana Reeve, widow of actor Christopher Reeve and chairman of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, addresses the “Spring Into Action” rally on Capitol Hill in April. Spinal cord injury victims and their families took part in the rally to push for passage of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Act, to search for a cure to spinal cord injuries.
(Full-size photo)

BEDFORD, N.Y. – It’s controlled chaos in the Reeve household.

Dana Reeve’s 13-year-old yellow Lab is going to the vet for a checkup. Her stepson, Matthew, 25, who arrived from Los Angeles last night, has just rolled out of bed and is firing up his computer. Her son, Will, 12, is in Manhattan with a friend as part of Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.

And she flies to Peoria, Ill., the next day to give one of her many speeches on behalf of the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation, which she has chaired since her husband’s death in October at age 52.

For Dana Reeve, 43, life has gone on, simply because it has had to. And things seem deceptively normal in her rustic, relaxed house, which abounds with photos of Christopher with her and the children.

A copy of Jeannette Walls’ memoir, “The Glass Castle,” which Dana just started reading, is on her kitchen counter, next to a DVD of the 2000 Kevin Costner movie “Thirteen Days” and a welcome-home note for Matthew.

Dana is raising Will on her own and has put her acting and singing career on the back burner to focus on the foundation she formed with her husband. But she still misses the man she calls her “buddy,” who slipped into a coma and died after developing an infection from a pressure wound. A horseback riding injury in 1995 had paralyzed him from the neck down.

“I miss his companionship,” says Christopher’s widow, who wears his wedding band around her neck, attached to the brand-new Superman dog tags that will be sold through the foundation. (The 1978 “Superman” movie made Christopher Reeve a star.)

“I would really like him here,” she says. “It’s very disorienting to be one person instead of this team we always were.”

Dana is reserved, composed and quietly friendly. She cracks up that her new fuchsia blouse is just a tad more revealing than she expected and glows with parental pride when she talks about the accomplishments of her son and stepchildren.

She says Will just won a national award for a poem he wrote and that her stepdaughter, Alexandra (she and Matthew are Reeve’s children with Gae Exton), is about to graduate from Yale.

She wishes she could share those moments with Reeve. She speaks freely of him, without choking up or dabbing her eyes. This is not a woman who cries in public or wears her heart on her sleeve.

“Dana deals with the grief in private moments. Very rarely does she show that in public,” says Joseph Canose, who works at the foundation and has known Dana Reeve for three years. “She sees herself as needing to continue Chris’ work and not make this a personal platform.”

His memory accosts her at unpredictable moments that “come in waves,” she says. “I miss him most when I have a visceral memory.”

She remembers his laugh. And “the delight he took in being a dad. We had to share so much with other people. But this we shared exclusively between the two of us.”

A particularly difficult daily action is “turning on the lights in what was our bedroom. Hearing the buzz of those lights will remind me” of him, she says. “And seeing his clothes. I do great – and then I really miss him.”

Publicly, she’s stoic and purposeful, opting to continue the philanthropic work that transformed Reeve into an icon of heroism and a paralysis advocate in the last decade of his life.

“You don’t want to let him down,” Dana says.

That means taking over the publicity duties that Reeve loved but that his wife feels conflicted about. She’s wary in the spotlight and doesn’t relish dishing about her personal matters with Oprah Winfrey and Larry King.

“Chris was very comfortable in the public eye and thrived in that kind of environment. I, less so. I tend to not want to do the stuff, and I do it more out of duty,” she says.

“Chris was a buffer for me in that regard. I could say, ‘I’m not doing that interview.’ He was very happy to do it.”

Her biggest motivator for getting out there? To prove that her husband “didn’t live in vain and work in vain,” she says.

She and the children have found unique ways to make sure he isn’t forgotten. Will, an avid hockey player, and his teammates put the initials CR on their jerseys and donated $1 for every goal and assist to the foundation.

“It added up to thousands,” Dana says. “For Will, there’s a really strong sense of this universal love for his dad.”

She has taken over Reeve’s first-floor study, which remains a shrine to the actor. A framed poster of “In the Gloaming,” the 1997 HBO movie Reeve directed, hangs on the wall. The only giveaway that it’s now a woman’s space? The girlie flip-flops left on the floor by the desk.

“It’s nice to be surrounded by his things,” Dana says. She confesses that “it was a little bit neater when he was sitting at the desk. He didn’t like clutter.”

Her focus now is to raise as much cash as possible for the foundation. But without Reeve as the big celebrity draw, it remains to be seen whether she can hold public attention.

Still, “her level of involvement is surprising,” foundation publicist Maggie Goldberg says. “She plows through every single quality-of-life grant that comes through our office. She’s so dedicated to it and passionate about it.”

The Superman dog tags, which will be sold through the foundation beginning June 1 for $10, are part of the plan.

“It’s such a cool thing,” Dana says. “There’s something about the iconic stature of Superman that really speaks to a lot of people. Chris would always say that he’s the custodian of Superman for a while.”

She also loves the look of the tags, which she calls “very urban chic. If I see other people wearing this, it’ll be like a piece of Chris.”

Dana also is promoting a new children’s book, “Dewey Doo-it Helps Owlie Fly Again” (Randall Fraser Publishing, $18.95). It’s about a little bird with injured wings.

Initially, the musical storybook ended with Owlie being cured and able to fly. But after Reeve’s death, Dana had the writers, Brahm Wenger and Alan Green, change it.

“It really bothered me. That was not the point, and it certainly was not the point of what Chris’ mission was,” she says.

Now, Owlie’s friends help him learn to fly in a new way. “It’s very uplifting,” Dana says. “Hope is a real thing. It’s not pie in the sky.”

And she’ll continue advocating support for stem-cell research. She points to Proposition 71, the $3 billion stem-cell research fund that won approval in California in November. Reeve had been a public supporter of the legislation.

“The state-by-state initiatives is how it’s going to go,” Dana says. “California was a big victory. I think it’s gaining support as people understand what it is.”

The key, Dana says, is to “create an environment of unfettered scientific research with strict regulations. That’s how you move forward.”

For now, moving forward doesn’t include acting. Dana had been wrapping up her stint in the play “Brooklyn Boy” in Costa Mesa, Calif., when her husband slipped into the coma. After his death, she dropped out of the play’s Broadway production.

And although she sang on the audio CD accompanying “Owlie,” she doesn’t feel an urgency to perform again, partially because theater doesn’t leave much time for a single mom to see her son.

“At the moment, that kind of schedule is not going to work,” she says. “With the foundation, I want the momentum to keep going.

“I’m a big girl. I prioritize. I want to be acting, I want to be singing, but there will be time for that.”

And at this point, Dana can’t fathom dating again. Her idea of a hot night out? Going to one of Will’s hockey games, she jokes.

“Realistically, of course” she will date again someday, she concedes, because she’s “still young.”

“But right now, I so actively miss Chris. I still wear my ring. It doesn’t feel right. He’s still very much with me.”


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