In May 2004, a woman named Dana Reeve delivered a commencement speech at her alma mater, Middlebury College in Vermont, where she and her husband were being awarded honorary degrees. It was an upbeat speech. There was nothing unusual about that. Commencement speeches are supposed to be upbeat. Most of the time, they are also mind-numbingly boring. Ms. Reeve’s was riveting — not so much for what she said as for the rare authority with which she said it. We were reminded of her words, and of her remarkable optimism and courage, last week on hearing the news of her death of lung cancer at age 44.
Here is part of what Ms. Reeve told the newly minted graduates: “The one thing I can guarantee you can expect in life is that you will experience the thoroughly unexpected.” Here is how she had learned that: Ms. Reeve’s husband was Christopher Reeve, the actor-turned-activist who had been left a quadriplegic after a fall from a horse nine years earlier. The accident was a lightning strike that utterly transformed the couple’s lives.
Wealthy and well-connected as the Reeves were, they could easily have slipped out of the public eye after the accident to concentrate on his rehabilitation. Or she could have just quietly left him. Instead, while he never slackened in his rehab efforts, Mr. Reeve also developed a much broader focus, campaigning tirelessly for research that might lead to a cure for paralysis, whether caused by spinal cord injuries like his or by central nervous system disorders. And Ms. Reeve, far from giving in to despair, put her own career as a singer and actress on hold to join him in that effort.
As she put it that day in Vermont, “There really is no way of knowing where your life’s journey will take you.” Hers had already been grueling enough by then that when she went on to speak about responsibility and determination, her words had a force missing from the usual graduation-day bromides. “Some choices will choose you,” she said. “How you face these choices, these turns in the road, with what kind of attitude, more than the choices themselves, is what will define the context of your life.”
Even then, Dana Reeve, like her husband, had defined her life’s context as one little short of heroism, even though she laughed off any talk of saintliness. “Of course I’m doing this,” she once said of the unflagging support she gave her husband. “What other option is there?” Still, as she would have been the first to agree, she was not the main victim here. She had her health. She had her mate. Unfortunately, her life’s journey had two more cruel turns in store for her that would change both those things within little more than a year.
In October 2004, Christopher Reeve died unexpectedly, succumbing to an infection even as he refused to give up hope he would one day walk again. Ten months later, Dana Reeve, a nonsmoker, was diagnosed with lung cancer.
Even though doctors confirm that one in five women who develop lung cancer have never smoked a cigarette, the diagnosis was shocking, particularly coming as it did just six months after the death of Ms. Reeve’s mother of ovarian cancer. Surely, it was felt, this woman had been through enough already. Like the biblical Job, she might well have asked what she had done to deserve such a flurry of affliction.
As far as the public was aware, however, she never did ask. Instead, she cheerfully carried on the work she had taken over from her husband as president of the Christopher Reeve Foundation, the New Jersey-based organization that funds research into neuroscience and paralysis. She made arrangements for her young son’s care. And she kept her spirits up, saying simply, when asked how she did it, that she had “had a great role model” in her husband.
Christopher Reeve also gave a speech at Middlebury that spring day in 2004. He told the graduates that he understood their probable apprehension about entering the “real world.” “Sometimes,” he said, “I harbor a secret desire to be kidnapped by aliens and taken to a planet more sensible than this one.” Who wouldn’t, in his place? But then he added a simple sentence, striking in its calm equanimity: “Time and again, hope is renewed by the actions of ordinary people, and a couple of examples come to mind.”
Mr. Reeve’s examples were the members of the 9/11 Commission and AIDS activists. We can think of a couple more people who have renewed hope, if not for our planet, then for self-absorbed, squabbling humanity: Mr. Reeve himself and his wife, Dana.
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