Jewish World Review Oct. 11, 2004 / 26 Tishrei 5765

Jay D. Homnick

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Christopher Reeve, R.I.P. | The passing of Christopher Reeve leaves a pang in the heart of all people of sensitivity and conscience. Measured against the sensations of flesh and the rotations of the clock, his seems a stunted life, constricted then foreshortened by tragedy. But when assessed through the lens of the eternal, it was something uniquely complete, a fine jewel, beveled and polished.

A sort of superstitious stigma has attended the role of Superman in film. Apparently, a number of men who have attempted it were later beset by bleak vicissitudes of fate. Actors have begun to harbor the suspicion that it does not behoove Man, even in flights of histrionic fancy, to assume powers that borrow from the realm of the divine. But Reeve had worn the role in utmost humility; these morbid merchants of hindsight are peddling a cruel sham. That film was a legitimate exercise in fantasy, but his injury was the stuff of grim reality.

More profitable not to hector the actor but to attend with patience the patient. Let us accompany the young man, son of a professor and himself well-educated, successful in his career, fine husband and father, beloved and admired by many, as he sets out that fateful morning on his faithful horse for a moment of equestrian recreation. Somehow the carrier is rattled and in his confusion the rider is thrown. He wakes up in a hospital inside a body stilled by paralysis.

Imagine the shock to that proud spirit. How easy the path of retreat! How convenient the road to despair! Who could have faulted him had he turned away from the narrow and dark tunnel that was left to him to navigate? Who would condemn him if he simply let the Grim Reaper claim his soul as a trophy?

No. No. No. Never. He fought. He fought for every moment. He fought for every measly inch that the world would stingily afford. The list of degrading procedures that he had to endure constantly would daunt the hardiest soldier. Knights who slew dragons with ease would crumple into groveling wrecks if confronted by his challenges.

He faced them all, and he did it with indomitable strength and spirit, with grace and aplomb. He never said a harsh word in public nor uttered the slightest whimper or grumble.

The Jewish tradition admonishes us to avoid corrupting the elegiac by cloaking it in the hyperbolic, but in this instance there is no fear of exaggeration. In numerous interviews, and later in public appearances and projects, he comported himself with absolute dignity, utterly transcending the pain and humiliation of his daily experience.

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He was not alone in his heroic quest. His wife Dana and his friend Robin Williams are the ones whose names we know, but numberless doctors and nurses and physical therapists joined that long march against adversity. He inspired them; they inspired him; they displayed humanity at its very best. When he worked again as an actor and director, it was the crowning achievement of the entire saga. To not only survive but to create, to gather the forces of intellect and emotion and spirit to achieve and inspire even when the body is denied its contribution, this was the very soul of greatness.

Now the soul has been taken, too, and we are the poorer for losing so rich a companion. Yet the memory is ours to treasure. It edifies well beyond sentimentality; a real model of refined human behavior accompanies us, giving the lie to our petty gripes but giving too the strength to endure life's most crushing blows.

It occurs to me that we need not be shy about giving him the name that he earned, because he earned it with blood and pain and anguish which he faced not as a victim but as a combatant. In his paralysis he moved worlds; he used a vision like an x-ray to see through to the heart of life; and he shared what he saw in the tones of a mild-mannered reporter. Yes, it is true, he was the closest thing in our little world (call it Smallville, if you will), in our "Daily Planet", to Superman.

JWR contributor Jay D. Homnick is the author of many books and essays on Jewish political and religious affairs. Comment by clicking here.


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07/02/04: An Oval quandary: The Incredible Shrinking President
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04/21/04: The doctor is not in
03/17/04: Yanqui go home
02/09/04: Bush's full courting of Meet the Press (and other tales of Kay's treat)
01/08/04: Is taking two tablets bad for your constitution?
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11/21/03: Ronald Reagan — so misunderstood
11/14/03: Mulling (And Culling) The Democratic Field
11/11/03: World Seriously crazy: Grand malay seizures and Gibson screwballs
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08/26/03: They don't sue prematurely (Tales Out Of Court)
07/29/03: Equipped with a quip, he gave the Hope
07/11/03: Speaking of Euro mania
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06/16/03: Iraq and roll
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04/23/03: The Nutrasweet War against the Axis of Evil: Did Rummy forget?

© 2003, Jay D. Homnick