Roy Exum: ‘And You Are Still You’

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

My mother was big on good manners and one that has paid off in diamonds and rubies was a lesson learned early – know the name of every person at the table. So, when time allows it, I try to speak to those at any table before I take my chair. At Siskin Hospital’s fabulous ‘Possibilities’ last week, I found where I had been assigned and a handsome guy – I’m guessing early 30s – smiled brightly as he caught my eye or mine caught his.

This was just minutes before the program so I quickly circled to shake hands with my friend, asking about his family and promising we should do better about getting together. His smile got even bigger and he stage-whispered, “Um … I am the guest speaker.”

Not only had I never met Will Reeve, I obviously hadn’t paid enough attention. So help me, I couldn’t have told you who was speaking if I’d been asked at the opening whistle. “Thanks for being here any way! Siskin Hospital is one of Chattanooga’s greatest treasures and, trust me, anything is possible at that place!”

Will’s father was Christopher Reeve, who you will remember as “Superman” and also recognize as one of the most handsome and striking gentlemen ever on earth. But what you don’t know is that his mother, Dana, was the granddaughter of Mahlon Pitney, a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and a direct descendant of William Bradford, a Mayflower passenger. What you should also immediately deduce is that she was far better looking than her Superman. Key point: never let looks hide real beauty.

On the morning of May 17, 1995, a shrill telephone crushed her world. She had been packing in the hotel near the equestrian competition when she was told Christopher could easily die and was unable to breathe on his own. But her child, Will, was oblivious to the tragedy and just wanted to kick a soccer ball. So Dana played soccer with Will before going to the hospital.

The daughter of a cardiologist and a summa cum laude graduate from Middlebury, she knew there was nothing she could do to help because a long, rough road lay ahead. At the time she was 34 years old and in the next two months Christopher begged her to take Will and find a new life somewhere.

All “Superman” could see was what a dead weight he would be. “He begged and begged mom to take me and start all over,” said Will. “She would tell dad that she was going to stay right where she was until finally she had to put her foot down. ‘It is you who I still love and you are still you.’

“I have a plan that will work. If – two years from now – you want Will and me to leave, we might talk about ‘your plan’ but my plan comes first. We aren’t going anywhere. But for this to work, you have to promise you’ll give it all you’ve got. You have to fight every day.”

Will Reeve is dramatic evidence good plans work. Both parents were determined that Will have as normal a childhood as possible “They told me when to turn the TV off, to eat my broccoli, when to go to bed …”

The younger Reeve called his upbringing “wonderful.” In the last nine years of his life where he never got out of that wheelchair and could not be weaned from a portable ventilator, Christopher Reeve did as much for spine injuries and research as any other person in modern times. The Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation, where Will tends watch when he is not working for ESPN, has given millions for research and, as Will sees it, “A hero is an ordinary individual who finds strength to persevere in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”

Just 17 months after Christopher died in October 2004 at age 52, Will’s mother died with lung cancer in July of 2006 at the age of 44. Before she did, she made arrangements for Will – an orphan at the age of 13 -- to grow up with hometown friends. Whoever that was should be beaming.

* * *

One hero among us is Mike Wilson, who was paralyzed from the chest down after a routine surgery resulted in complications. After five intensive months at Siskin Hospital, he stood up on his own not once but twice at a recent school event for his grandchild – once for the national anthem and once for the Navy hymn.

* * *

This was the 25th straight Possibilities luncheon and – something we should never forget -- is that UNUM has picked up the tab every year. All of the luncheon proceeds help Siskin treat those with inadequate medical insurance. Yes, you can help, too, by sending a check to the hospital’s president and CEO, Carol Sim. (One Siskin Plaza, Chattanooga TN 37403)

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