There's a fine line between appreciation and sympathy when something happens to a person who is known in the public eye. Everybody is paying tribute to Christopher Reeve today upon learning that he died yesterday.
Reeve became a symbol of hope for people with spinal cord injuries after he became a quadraplegic in 1995. His life before that was not that important to me. I saw the first two Superman movies but that was all I knew of him.
My awareness of just what type of man he was changed after his accident, because he became someone who I knew a little more about than most people.
In August of 1987, I left home for my freshman year of college at the University of Iowa. I had delayed going to school for two years after high school graduation. I was 20, and eager to get started with my adult life. I anticipated a year of typical dorm life-staying up late, sports, etc. I was randomly assigned housing just like thousands of other students at the university.
It wasn't until I arrived at Iowa and moved in to my dorm that I discovered that I was living on a floor that was reserved for the physically disabled. Of the 24 people living there, I was one of three not to have a physical disability. I was randomly selected to fill a space in a room. It was an eye-opening experience. I had never really dealt with anyone disabled. The only time I recalled seeing anyone in a wheelchair was in a hospital or a nursing home.
I felt a little like Jack Nicholson in "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest," and I say that not to compare life in a mental institution to life among the physically disabled, but as a way of comparing what it was like to be different from a majority of the people around me, to be the minority because I was healthy.
I have to admit that it took a little bit of time for me to adjust, and I moved out of the first room I lived in, partly because I could not get used to the routine that my quadraplegic roommate had to endure on a daily basis (there was constant activity in a very small room from attendants) but mostly because I had become good friends with another disabled person on the floor who had other roommate issues. So we switched and I moved in with a paraplegic.
The dominant disability on the floor was paralysis, all resulting from accidents. Some had been involved in car accidents, others victims of cruel circumstance like diving into a pool only to discover that it was too shallow and beaking their neck on the bottom.
I always thought of paralysis as one of two things: the inability to use one's legs, or the inability to move anything from below the neck. Instead I found out that each person who suffers from paralysis truly is affected in a unique way. A few students were completely independent, able to care for themselves, get to and from class, and do anything except walk, while others were somewhat independent, but needed assistance in more basic things like getting dressed because while they could move their arms, they did not have full control of their hands. And some residents of my floor were full quadraplegics, unable to move anything below their head; one student was unable to breathe on his own and had to be connected to a respirator.
I was incredibly sympathetic to what these men had to go through everyday, and looking back it did affect me because it was impossible to spend time there and not feel sadness, and more than a little guilt for being "normal." But as time passed and I got to know each person, I saw that the ability to move on from tragic circumstance made resolve the strongest thing about them. Most of the residents on my floor were considerably older than the average university student. It had taken time to get back to the normal routine of life.
It always amazed me how some of them got back and forth to class day in and day out. I found myself wondering if I would be capable of doing that if my life had been completely changed as theirs had. I still don't know; things that took me so little time to do, like bathing or eating, took some more than an hour to accomplish.
I lived elsewhere on campus after that first year, and I lost track of most of the people who lived on that floor. Some dropped out, some moved off campus. The most seriously injured of the goup died a year or so later. I don't know where anyone is today, except for my roommate; who is alive or dead, but unfortunately I do know that no one has been cured.
My freshman year roommate has been a close friend of mine for the last seventeen years. We went through a lot together during my four years at Iowa, had a lot of good times and have kept in close touch since graduation in 1991. I'veknown him longer than most of my other friends in my life. He was injured in a car accident when he was 18, almost two years before I met him, and he has been confined to a wheelchair since. He is independent and has built a good life for himself in Texas. I love him like a brother. He's taught me a lot about the right way to live one's life.
But I have never been able to stand eye to eye with him. He's never complained to me once about his lot in life, and I know he would think it silly for me to say that. I have always hoped for a day when there is a knock on my door and he is there, standing in front of me, able to walk into my house.
When Christopher Reeve was injured, I thought that if there was anything positive to take from it, it would be that there would be more focus on these devastating types of injuries. He was the first "celebrity" to suffer such an injury.
I don't think you can place a better measure on a man who takes his own adversity and uses it to help others who are less fortunate that share his fate. For all the times that I saw and read Reeve speak out for more help, more research to cure spinal cord injuries, never once did he complain about what happened to him. He gave so much of himself to others during a time when it would have been perfectly acceptable for him to shun publicity.
So he leaves this world without knowing if there will be a cure in our lifetime. Regardless of what happens, he goes to his reward with the knowledge that he made a difference,and covered more miles than any of us could do on foot.