St. Patrick’s Day (March 17) 1995 my father broke his neck while cross-country skiing down a hill just a few hundred feet from our family home in Anchorage, Alaska. In May of the same year I remember sitting by my dad’s bed on the 9th floor at University of Washington Medical Center watching TV reports of the actor Christopher Reeve’s deabilitating spinal cord injury. At the time they (perhaps Reeve himself) were saying he would surely walk again. I remember telling my mom that poor bastard would have to come to terms with what’s happened (exactly what my family was dealing with at the time). In 1995 my dad and Mr. Reeve experienced almost identical injuries—fracture of the C4/C5 vertebrae that pinched their spinal cords and rendered them quadrapalegic, completely paralyzed from the neck down. I watched my dad decline in health over the course of 10 months. One day we sat in physical therapy together and he looked down at the body which had months ago been the picture of perfect health for a man in his 60s but which he no longer controlled. The once slender, muscular build from a lifetime of daily workouts was now wasting away with muscular atrophy.
The final 10 months of my dad’s life were anything but poetic or pretty. I saw him check out mentally. I saw the body I had always admired detriorate. I saw my family torn apart by the loss of my father and the financial and emotional prospect of sustaining him in a paralyzed physical state for an unspecified period of time. But I was also able to spend precious time with him talking about his fear of death, his desire to have it come sooner than later, his love of my mom and all of us kids. He was able to visit with a lot of old friends which was nice. That was definitely worth some of the pain of seeing him suffer over time.
Richard William Spils died on January 3, 1996. My brother Greg called me today (about 8 years after Dad died) when news of Christopher Reeve’s death surfaced. I don’t think Greg even necessarily knew why he was calling me, but over the years we’ve all silently watched Christopher Reeve and his family and understood from a distance what they must be going through. Mr. Reeve’s death seemed sudden like my father’s, and related to the peculiar ailments of paralysis. One of the last bits of news I remember hearing about Christopher Reeve was that he had developed alopecia. I developed alopecia universalis 6 years ago but seeing Reeve with alopecia made me realize what an insignificant condition it really is.
Christopher Reeve made larger leaps than I would have imagined for anyone with an injury as severe as his. He and his family deserve big props for their perserverance. I wish them the best as they deal with the related sense of loss and relief that my family felt when my dad died.
Goodbye Christopher Reeve. Goodbye Richard Spils.