I was in the book biz back when Christopher Reeve's autobiography was published. At the CBA Convention that year, there was a great deal of buzz about his possibly attending. During one of countless martini breaks (there's nothing like a bookseller's convention to get the gin flowing by the gallon), I spoke with a guy from Random House who quietly admitted he was just one person of many responsible for making sure Mr. Reeve's forthcoming visit was a smooth one.
"Will he be signing his book?" I asked. The guy stared at me; I cleared my throat and apologized for my distasteful sense of humour.
"Oh," said he, "I've been asked that very question in all seriousness. And when I try to point out that the man is quadriplegic, people still say, 'Well, doesn't he write with his mouth? Couldn't he at least leave a thumb-print?'"
We talked some more, and I found out just what a logistical nightmare this visit presented. Given Reeve's sensitive physical condition, a route had to be charted in advance that guaranteed his motorized chair would experience no bumps whatsoever. Apparently convention centres, for all their slate-like anonymity, are surprisingly difficult for someone in his condition to navigate.
Despite my conversationalist's gin-loosened tongue, there was no getting him to say when Reeve would arrive. They didn't want a mob on their hands, so it was to be a surprise. Sure enough, sometime later the murmur on the convention floor grew louder, and people converged. Christopher Reeve rolled in, smiling magnificently. I watched as people applauded and wept without pause.
The depth of people's emotional response surprised me, and when I'm not careful it surprises me still. It took me a while to tease out why I wasn't as profoundly moved as others obviously were, but strange as it might seem, I think it was due to my religious background. I had already met with and heard the stories of other quadriplegics. In fact, there are quads and other people with significant challenges who can and do maintain a decent living working the speaker circuit in Christian circles, evangelical or otherwise. These people present their stories to an audience that is receptive for political reasons, yes, but also for deeply personal reasons. A quadriplegic can embody our darkest fear, but also our deepest hope - that no matter what our condition, our humanity still retains and will be accorded the highest value.
The current media environment devotes some energy to "human interest" stories, but I think the emotional response I witnessed was an indication of just how rarely we encounter stories of human depth. Christopher Reeve managed to become one of those stories, and to have his story conclude, as they all must, is something to be mourned. But a larger tragedy occurs if it is forgotten and buried in the distracting chaff being sold to us as "reality." I hope that doesn't happen, because clearly the public needs his story - and others like it.