For all of Nancy Reagan’s moments in the limelight…first as a Hollywood star and then as first lady of California and the nation…her finest moment was out of the limelight. That was her 10-year long caring for the Ronald Reagan we didn’t know, the Ronald Reagan whose authority and intellect diminished as his mind was destroyed by Alzheimer’s. From all accounts she gave him the same love and attention she did before he came down with the disease. Maybe even more so.
The reason I especially appreciate her final devotion to her spouse is because I, like many other Americans, can identify with it. My parents are going through a similar experience. My mom has Alzheimer’s or perhaps severe dementia…you can’t really be sure which it is until after death. The bottom line is, she rarely recognizes those around her, she hasn’t been able to put a sentence together for more than 2 years, and about three months ago, she lost her ability to walk.
But what she hasn’t lost is the love of the man she married 66 years ago…my dad. I really don’t think the two of them have ever loved each other more than they do now.
Fortunately they’ve been careful with their money and can afford a full-time helper to move my mother around and see to her basic needs. But my father is never far away…eating with her, talking to her, or just silently holding her hand and kissing it.
As hard as it is to care for a beloved who’s struck by this, there is a joyfulness in my parents’ house. They have made the wonderful discovery that while brain power can disappear, the soul (and the love that comes out of it) is still visible…in some ways more clearly than ever. My mother’s sweet and loving spirit comes through in her smile, in her eyes, and in an occasional sentence jumble, which invariably has the word “love” in it. My father lives for those moments. I do, too.
My father is two years older than my mother, and he has a host of familiar ailments that come with age, including bad knees and kidneys. But his mind is good, and his caring for my mother these past several years has been the most heroic thing I’ve ever seen him do. I have a new-found respect for the man, as I’m sure the Reagan children developed for their mom. And to develop a renewed love and respect for your parents at the end of their life is a real blessing, and helps children fulfill their obligations with joy rather than out of a begrudging sense of duty.
Of course there are many frustrations that come with caring for a spouse hobbled by a lost mind. And Nancy Reagan was not hesitant about sharing details of that burden. But there is a beauty to behold between couples who have devoted their lives to each other. ..even when one of them gets sick. And the prolonged care that Nancy Reagan gave to her husband must have been beautiful to see. Of course I never saw them together in the final years. But as I see my folks this weekend, I will think of the Reagan’s, and their deep love that, like my parents’ love, endured through a cloudy mind.
God bless Nancy Reagan. God bless Ronald Reagan. And God bless their eternal love.
Rest in peace.