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Christopher Reeve Memorial Service: My Notes

Christopher Reeve Memorial Service: My Notes

Wise Young, Ph.D., M.D.

W. M. Keck Center for Collaborative Neuroscience
Rutgers University, Piscataway, New Jersey 08854-8082
Posted 30 November 2004, last updated 15 August 2005

Christopher Reeve died on October 10, 2004 (see A Eulogy for Christopher Reeve). The Reeve family held a memorial service for Christopher Reeve yesterday (2-5 PM on October 29, 2004) at the Julliard Theater next to Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Some 900 guests attended the memorial service, by invitation only. I was very grateful to have gotten an invitation and sat in the second row with Patricia Morton. Many celebrities were there, accounting for a huge crowd of photographers and television cameras at the entrance. Cameras and recording devices were forbidden. About two dozen people in wheelchairs were present, including Brooke Ellison, Chuck Close, and others. As the program progressed, I felt strongly that the spinal cord injury community should be able to share in it. So, I took extensive notes at the meeting on the program booklet (image of one of the pages below) so that I could report it to the CareCure Community. It took me a while to write this up because there were so many remarkable statements made by friends and family of Christopher Reeve at the memorial. My apologies to anybody that I may have misrepresented or left out.

Scan of Program Booklet at Christopher Reeve's Memorial Service 29 October 2004 (with my notes)

My Notes

Reverend Frank Hall started and ended the service. A distinguished looking man with a big white beard, he gave thanks to the audience and spoke about how Christopher occupied a sacred place, how we have gathered to celebrate Christopher even though all that we want is to have him back. He pointed out Christopher's mystical energy, his amazing and beautiful spirit.

Dana Reeve spoke next. She was herself, amongst friends, beautiful and a little flustered. Although she had notes to make sure that she thanked many people for the memorial, she spoke from the heart, describing her memories of Christopher. She described how he loved to play with words. Whenever somebody came into the house and says hello, he would reply hello to you. When people said, goodnight or goodbye, he would reply goodnight or goodbye to you. She pointed out how "he did not suffer fools gladly" and his sharp and dry wit. She recalled how when they went to a play once (she quickly pointed out that none of the people in the audience was involved, to the relief of some in the audience, I think) and announced after the play that "Everybody can relax, the worst actor in the world has been identified". She described his generous capacity to love his nurses, his aides, his friends, his doctors, and his family, his "iron-clad loyalty" to them, and how they all had a place in his heart. His life was much too short, she said. She said that, among the hidden gifts and daily challenges, there were genuine moments of pleasure and love. In the last several years, he has been at greater peace with himself and his injury. She spoke of gifts, first and foremost his children. Matthew is his first son when Christopher was 27 years old and to whom he gave unconditional love. Matthew has an artistic vision, Christopher's dry and sharp wit, his sensitivity, his love of seafood, and his blue eyes. Alexandra was Christopher's "little girl" (of course, Alexandra is now over 6 feet tall now) with a wonderful sense of humor, fluent in French, a healthy hunger for knowledge, and brilliant. He was very proud of her academic achievements and when she went to Yale. Last but not least is Will (Wilbur, Christopher's son with Dana) who was the "good will ambassador", who had Christopher's genius for bringing people together, his passion for sports, sophisticated and dry sense of humor, his "gung-ho go-for-it" genes, and his caring and compassion for others.

Dana invited Will out to speak. He came out on stage, a 14-year old. [He looked remarkably similar to the 4-year old who once long ago greeted me at the doorway of his father' house, solemnly shaking hands with me, as I am sure that he did with all the other visitors]. Will spoke in a clear voice, saying that Christopher as a father didn't "fake it", that he gave love to, and that Christopher "lived to love". He recalled his father the sports fan who came to many of his hockey games; the team (the Westchester Express) was well on its way to the state championship this year. He described his last day with his father. On Saturday (October 9), Christopher went to see a hockey game that Will played in. The team won 9-7. Christopher cheered... "WILBUR, WILBUR" behind the glass. They came home. [Later news reports indicated that Christopher called John Kerry and left him a long message thanking him for mentioning spinal cord injury in the Presidential Debate]. Will went to shower, do some emailing, and came down to join his father in watching the New York Yankees. Christopher was a fan of the Yankees. They watched the game until 10:30 PM or so. A good day of "father-son bonding", as Will put it. Will then turned the channel to CNN so that his father could watch the news and the progress of the elections. He kissed his father goodnight. He said, little did he know that this would be the last time he would see his father conscious.

Dana went on to describe Christopher's penchant for sailing. She said that she was game but susceptible to seasickness in rough seas. To Christopher, any time there was wind was a good time for a sail. She remembered one April. A blizzard came upon them while they were sailing. Christopher was in heaven. The snow was falling so fast that somebody had to wipe the snow off the instruments so that he could see the compass. She said, Christopher always had a powerful sense of direction. After his injury, his sense of direction got even keener. Dana said that she was absent-minded and did not always know what direction was which. He finally devised a rule that always worked for Dana, "It's always the other way". He was logical and orderly. She was proud when he wrote the character trait of forgetfulness into the character that played Brook Ellison's mother. Dana choked and then said quietly that she had made a vow to love and cherish Christopher "till death doth us part". She said that she could not keep that vow and that she will forever love and cherish... she fled the stage.

The pianist Rui Shi then played Mendelssohn's "Songs without Words" on a grand Steinway on the stage. Mendelssohn, Brahms, and Mozart were Christopher's favorite composers. Before the memorial service started, a small quartet, composed of Yumi Cho, Sarah Kapustin, Youming Chen, and Caitlin Sullivan performed Brahms and Mozart pieces while people were gathering.

Christopher's nurses spoke next. The first was Dolly Arro. I have met Dolly several times during the years that she was with Christopher. She was weeping from the moment she stepped on the stage. Between sniffles, she managed to put the audience into stitches. She described how she was a nurse when she started taking care of Christopher in 1995, how he became a friend and mentor. She then pointed out that she had to learn not to come running whenever he said her name while talking on the phone because he was usually talking about "the sheep" and not her. Bill Bernby and Eileen Adams also spoke about their experience, how Christopher use to call his night nurses Ninja nurses because they had to be stealthy at nights so as not to wake up Christopher and Dana. Bill spoke and described how Christopher started each day to make it better than yesterday. He recalled when Christopher carried the Olympic torch and his attitude towards life, his quip for everybody who said that I couldn't, or I shouldn't, or I wouldn't: "See you at the finish line".

Jack O'Brien was one of the first to recognize Christopher's acting talent. He met Christopher in the spring of 1972. He said, Christopher was 19-year old, a "young Greek god" and a "goof", "surprisingly round-shouldered". He came to San Diego to play Shakespeare, young Master Fenton. And he was "not very good". But when Christopher played "Kind Edwards", that was when his gravitas and authority appeared. He recalled how he met Christopher and Dana 32 years later when he was injured. They had come to San Diego for some scientific meeting (probably Neuroscience) and they had dinner.

Reverend Jack Strasburger asked what a hero is. He pointed out that real heroes are not superhumans doing acts that seem extraordinary. Christopher knew he was not superman. He was "trapped" in his body. But Christopher was never more powerful. He thrived in the "authentic role". His spinal cord was "severed" but not his spirit. He believed in sharing, being all that you can be, and not worrying about what you can't do.

Benjamin Reeve is Christopher's brother. [He was one of the first members of the Reeve family to call me after Christopher's injury]. He described how he was the brother, the one who had the blue mittens while Christopher had the red mittens. He described when Christopher was afraid and when he had every reason to shirk, he applied self-discipline to live consciously, to live every moment committed to living until his death.

Michael Manganelo spoke next. [As many of you may know, he leads the fight in Washington DC for the Coalition of Medical Research CAMR which tirelessly advocates for more research and stem cell research]. Michael and Dana had become friends when they worked as waiters in a restaurant in the upper Westside Manhattan in the early 1980's. He recalled when Dana met Christopher, how she said that her new boyfriend was sort of famous. He described when Christopher gave her a present once on her birthday while they were dating and that it was not diamonds but bicycle shoes. He talked about how Christopher would praise the Senate in public but would castigate them in private for not doing enough. He said how Christopher loved the long straight hallways in Congress. Christopher always knew that they could "run but could not hide from him". Michael said that Christopher had a true impact on public policy. One of Christopher's allies in the Senate was Tom Harkin, Senator of Iowa and also head of the Health and Human Services Committee. Michael spoke of how Christopher went to Iowa to help campaign for Tom Harkin. Michael pointed out that Christopher was not partisan. He was intending to campaign for Arlen Specter this fall.

Tom Harkin spoke next. He pointed out that Christopher had a number of choices. He could have made money and simply took care of himself. But, he instead became an advocate, not only for spinal cord injury but stem cells. He was a "real-life" hero. Tom recalls that Christopher had an "impish sense of humor". Shortly after his successful re-election as Senator from Iowa, Christopher had called him, more excited than Tom himself. Christopher said, "You know, I am taking full credit for your victory". During the campaign, Tom Harkin had observed the wear and tear on Christopher. He said, "his wheelchair was his bully pulpit". He said that Christopher knew more about stem cells than anybody, had a broader vision about the importance of the research, and was better-read and superb teacher on the subject than anybody. Finally, he pointed out that Christopher was a superb politician. He knew the importance of legislation and what it could do. He knew when he had to go over the heads of the politicians, and go to the public. Tom shook his head and asked, can you imagine Proposition 71 "Terminator joins Superman". Tom Harkin then said more to himself than anybody else, "Why am I being coy? Vote for Kerry!" Tom Harkin pointed into the audience and said that Teresa Heinz Kerry is with us today. Christopher spoke up for everybody. Of course he wanted the cure for himself but he wanted it for everybody else.

Brian Stokes Mitchell then sang the song "The Impossible Dream", saying that if there was any song that was written for Christopher, this was it. It was powerful. Here are some of the words:

To dream the impossible dream,
to fight the unbeatable foe,
to bear with unbearable sorrow,
to run where the brave dare not go...

To right the unrightable wrong,
to love pure and chaste from afar,
to try when your arms are too weary
to reach the unreachable star!

This is my quest --
to follow that star
no matter how hopeless,
no matter how far --
To fight for the right
without question or pause,
to be willing to march into hell
for a heavenly cause!

And I know
if I'll only be true
to this glorious quest
that my heart
will be peaceful and calm
when I'm laid to my rest.

And the world will be better for this
that one man, scorned and covered with scars,
still strove with his last ounce of courage
To reach the unreachable stars!

Robert Kennedy was a close friend and neighbor of Christopher Reeve. He was hoarse and apologized for his voice but was determined to speak. He said that few people know this but, when they go to the Berkshire Mountains and breathe the clean air, they should remember Christopher Reeve. Christopher had worked with Robert Kennedy to lobby the New York State government to stop the Half Moon Bay Power Plant from emitting more pollution. George Pataki was running for governor at the time and Kennedy had opposed him. After the election, Governor Pataki called up Robert Kennedy's partner and said, more or less, that Kennedy should not expect anything from him or his administration. This was in 1994. In 1995, Patacki unexpectedly called Kennedy and asked what needed to be done to get the pollution controls. Kennedy said, please lock us up in at room with all the stakeholders and don't let us leave until we have struck a deal. Pataki did this and the negotiations led to an agreement that has become the most widely admired template for stakeholder agreements on environmental pollution around the world. Several weeks later, Kennedy asked Governor Pataki why he reversed his course. Pataki said that it was because of Christopher Reeve who had told him that he had to be a hero for the people. When he saw Christopher Reeves injured and how Christopher handled it, Pataki wanted to do something. [Note that Pataki later became a champion of the New York State spinal cord injury bill from speeding tickets, as well]. Kennedy said that he spent many evenings with Christopher and that while he was not so religious, he was the most spiritual man that he had ever known. Christopher had a mind that naturally made order out of chaos. In all the time that he knew Christopher, he never heard him say a single word of bitterness or self-pity. His goal was to turn evil into good. Christopher frequently said, "I am the luckiest person in the world". Kennedy ended up his comments with the following statement. "The best evidence that God has a special love for people with spinal cord injury is that he gave us somebody like Christopher Reeve."

Scott Henderson was Christopher Reeve's agent for 20 years. He pointed out that Christopher Reeve was a perfectionist. He would not only require perfection for his part on the scripts but he would read the other parts and complained when they were not perfect. According to Scott, nothing stopped Christopher. People kept saying that it could not be done. He always found a way. Christopher was always right. He brought out the best in everybody who worked with him. Scott listed many groups that had worked with Christopher after his injury. Scott is with the William Morris Agency.

Glenn Close then spoke. She described how she worked with Christopher Reeve in the movie, "In the Gloaming." She first met him when Christopher flew Robin Williams to an island where she was shooting a film. They have become friend ever since. She described how when Christopher was at work, it was all work and no play. She described how he pushed the envelope on every thing, his "fierce" mental attitude. Then, she described a scene from the movie where a son kept asking the mother to sing a song that she use to sing in his childhood but the mother kept on demurring, saying that she could no longer sing. Glenn Close then sang a haunting rendition of Danny Boy.

Matthew, Alexandra, and Will (the three children of Christopher) came on stage. They introduced the tribute film that Matthew edited and Will did the voice-over for. This was a video that Dana had prepared for Christopher's 50th birthday, involving family and friends. It was really touching and I am afraid that words cannot really express a video. It was filled with faded pictures of Christopher and family.

After the tribute film, Meryl Streep spoke. She said that Christopher Reeve probably doesn't know it but she thought of him all the time. In the mornings, when she had to get up to work and "get off her whiney hiney", she thought of Christopher who never whined. She spoke of his generosity, and grace, in comparison to our own "heedless good health". She said, "The more that was taken from him, the more he gave". What one person can give to the world? She then read a poem [I don't recall the title or author but two phrases leapt out at me during the reading: "arrogant loneliness" and "begin again".]

Finally, Robin Williams came out. He had a bottle of water and he splashed some of it on a plant on stage, calling it a stem cell. I cannot reproduce Robin Williams here and it would not be fair to do so. So, let me just say that I have seen Robin many times on stage. I have never seen him as sad and tired-looking as this time. Very typically, he would be filled with manic energy and four-lettered words. But the only four-letter words that I heard that afternoon were "hope" and "cure". He kept the audience roaring with laughter, however. Many people were crying. Whether it was for joy or sadness, it was hard to tell. Robin ended up reading two poems. One was from ee cummings that ended,

how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death



©Wise Young PhD, MD


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