12 years ago today, I was walking to Kendall Hall at The College of New Jersey. I had a morning news show to cover on our radio station, WTSR, and I wasn’t quite awake yet when my phone buzzed an alert. If I remember correctly, it was my best friend Bart who sent it. Only three words but it absolutely gutted me.
Christopher Reeve died.
I’m not even going to put my usual captions in here for this post. It still hurts too much.
See, less than a month earlier, Mr. Reeve was the keynote speaker at Empower NJ, an event being held at First Energy Park. This was where I was working, as the Lakewood Blueclaws’ cameraman. When I heard over the loudspeaker he was going to be here, I thought it was a joke. I literally ran back into our production booth and demanded confirmation I had heard things properly. No one understood why this was a big deal.
I don’t remember the exact wording, but I pretty much flat out demanded that I be allowed to work. I don’t think I even got paid for the event and it really didn’t matter. I would have paid the team to be present. Christopher Reeve, a Jersey boy done good, a true Superman, was one of my heroes.
The weather had been cold and rainy and there was a fear the event might be cancelled. No one wanted this champion for the disabled to be laid low by a cold from a speaking engagement. But there he was, right on schedule, and boy was it worth waiting for. His speech was powerful then, and remains just as powerful now.
My friend Tim, who will stand beside me at my wedding in a month, had a constant look of awe on his face. Neither of us could believe we were so close to someone we both had been influenced by growing up. Tim had another reason to smile, though he wouldn’t know it for a while longer- I introduced him to his future wife that night after the event wrapped. Michelle will be up there with us on our big day too, on Jaime’s side. Needless to say September 29th was a special night. We walked out to our cars unable to stop chattering about being in the presence of someone like Reeve.
Not even two weeks later, he was gone. I say this with complete conviction- there was no way to see it coming while he was in Lakewood. The world thought this was going to be the future:
Then I had to announce to the greater Trenton area that Christopher Reeve had passed away. He was only 52, with so many of his dreams left unfinished.
Years later, at the dedication of the Christopher Reeve Room at the Princeton Library, I met his mother. With me, was the tape of the Empower NJ speech. As far as I know, it was the last recorded public appearance of her son. If I held myself together well speaking to Kevin J. Anderson at ComicCon, the memory of speaking to Barbara is the antithesis to this. It remains a moment I am ashamed to think of. I just…couldn’t find the right words to express what the tape meant to me, what his memory meant to me. To all of us who were still in mourning, months later, really. She accepted the tape, which others had suggested I sell, and we shook hands. I didn’t say anything stupid. I just stumbled over what I had to say and here I am, 10 years later, still kicking my own ass over getting emotional.
That’s the thing about Christopher Reeve. He became more than just an entertainer. He fully admitted to thinking about clocking out early on life. For someone who loved to fly and sail and ride horses and be generally active, to be constrained to a wheel chair and rely on others for everything must have been maddening. I got a small dose of that in the hospital and it took every coping mechanism I have learned to keep myself balanced. And yet, Reeve kept going. I’m sure he had bad days. Who wouldn’t feel upset or grouchy or depressed when paralyzed after such a full life?
Some people criticize celebrities for drawing attention to their illness or condition only AFTER they’re diagnosed. It always bothered me…and now, being an aortic dissection survivor, I can honestly say that the notion infuriates me. If everyone was so saintly and pious with their expendable cash, there wouldn’t need to be constant fundraisers for research and development and treatment. I’m more than willing to man up- while John Ritter’s passing was incredibly sad, I didn’t give aortic dissections another thought until the words spilled out of my doctor’s mouth. Now I’m fully prepared to do what it takes to help however possible.
Breaking the news that one of my heroes had passed remains one of the hardest things I’ve had to do. But I remember one of the things Reeve said during his speech. It has resonated with me to this day:
“Empowerment begins with an understanding of oneself.Some people achieve it very early and unfortunately some never attain it and they miss out. But to begin to understand who you really are and what your capabilities are, what you want your legacy to be, you must begin to get to know yourself. It becomes clearer what you want to or have to do…
“I truly feel that if you understand yourself and you set goals without regard to the limits put on you, then nothing is impossible…All of us have the power to make that change happen by looking inside ourselves and saying ‘I’m going to do the best that I can to discover what potential is inside of me. There’s more inside of us than we are aware of.”
I miss him. Strange, I know, to miss someone you didn’t know. But I do. He gave hope to so many…and that’s not even counting the people who were inspired by his portrayal of Superman. Not once did I think that Reeve would pass away before walking again. If you looked in his eyes, he was determined to make his body function the way it needed to.
I had one private moment with Reeve that only lasted a second. Before he left the field, he was wheeled into the away team’s dugout where a ramp allowed for easier access to an elevator. His aids were busy adjusting his wheelchair and getting the door prepared for him. He wheeled forward and for a few seconds, we locked eyes. I nodded to him. He smiled. Then he was gone. Five seconds, tops. But no one else saw it. Then he was up the tunnel and into the darkness.
But that memory, that lone moment, staring at a good man who fought so hard? That’s with me every time I think of how hard life is going to be now, living with my heart condition. I hear his words echoing in the stadium on that damp night, when college seemed like my entire world and the future still held mysterious and sometimes scary promises.
I’m 32 now. I know Superman flew with the help of wires, that Christopher Reeve probably always had a clock ticking against him after his accident and the world has gotten both a lot larger and a lot smaller since the moment I turned on the microphone and read off the AP Newswire report. I’m also strong enough to say I still need Superman. I still need Christopher Reeve. I need those words to get me through the days when giving up seems so much easier and less painful and my goals seem impossibly far away.
After all, the man did write the book on the subject.
Up up and away,