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by Carmela Ciuraru, AARP The Magazine, August 2008|Comments: 0
The story, of course, is unbearably sad—a portrait of a marriage that began as a fairy tale and ended in tragedy. If it were fiction, the narrative would seem contrived and oppressively heartbreaking. By now, the broad details of the lives of Christopher and Dana Reeve are familiar but no less inspiring. Author Christopher Andersen, having penned bestselling biographies of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., among others, turns his attention to the Reeves’s extraordinary marriage. And despite Andersen’s maudlin prose, Somewhere in Heaven is still a powerful read.
The Reeves met in 1987 in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where Christopher was appearing in the town's prestigious annual theater festival. Unwinding after a day of rehearsals, he saw pretty actress-singer Dana Morosini, then 26 years old, perform at a local inn. He was immediately attracted. She, however, was unimpressed by his movie-star status—which attracted him all the more. They married in 1992, and a son, Will, was born that year. (Reeve already had two children, Matthew and Alexandra, from his decade-long relationship with British modeling agent Gae Exton.)
Just three years later came the transforming event of Reeve’s life: a horseback-riding accident that left him paralyzed and wanting to die. (“It was roughly equivalent to the spinal injury suffered when someone is hanged,” Andersen writes.) The Superman actor’s early life, despite a dysfunctional family, had been one of wealth and privilege; now the handsome six-foot-four actor was a quadriplegic, dependent on a respirator to breathe.
Dana not only helped him live, against all odds, for nine more years, but the couple became activist partners for stem-cell research. They also created the Christopher Reeve Foundation [now known as the Christopher & Dana Reeve Foundation], devoted to finding treatments for spinal cord injuries and improving the quality of life for people with disabilities. Whenever Reeve was inconsolable, Dana would reassure him; when his physical condition worsened, his wife’s efforts to make him more comfortable were tireless. His courage and resilience fueled her energy as well. Together they faced his disability, and together they attacked it as an enemy to be conquered. Dana resisted the media's relentless impulse to portray her as a saint. “I am just a woman whose husband fell off a horse, and I’m going to take care of him,” she said.
Although the author doesn't bring anything newsworthy (or particularly new) to the story, he includes original reminiscences from notable friends and admirers of the Reeves, including Donald Trump, John Kerry, and Al Gore, who urged Reeve to run for political office. (“What?” Reeve replied, “and lose my influence in Washington?”)
Reeve died in 2004 at age 52. Just 17 months later, in March 2006, Dana, a 44-year-old nonsmoker, succumbed to lung cancer. Each had led tragically brief lives with adventure, dignity, and grace—and above all, a strong aversion to self-pity. The calamity of Reeve's accident yielded burdens that would have ended many marriages, yet it only deepened the couple's already profound bond. That's what makes Somewhere in Heaven more than a celebrity biography: it can be read as an inspiring primer on stamina—physical, psychological, emotional—and an instructive reminder about love's purest and most essential meaning.
Carmela Ciuraru is a writer and editor in New York City. She has written for the Los Angeles Times, ArtNews, The Washington Post, and other publications, and edited six anthologies of poetry. She previously reviewed Project Everlasting for AARP The Magazine Online.
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