Remembering Nancy Reagan’s Courageous Fight for Alzheimer’s Research
The news did not surprise her. In 1994, Nancy Reagan took her beloved Ronnie to the Mayo Clinic. The former president, her soul mate of more than 40 years, had been forgetting things, repeating himself, trying but failing to do the simplest things. When the doctors returned with their devastating verdict— Alzheimer’s, then a relatively new term—Nancy was already braced for the worst. “By the time you go in to get checked out,” a source close to the family said, “something has given you the idea that there is something very wrong.” Discovering what the enemy was did not make the toll the disease would take any easier to bear. In 1994, “nobody knew what to expect,” the insider recalled. “We didn’t know what questions to ask, what to talk about, what the future would be like.” Nancy did know one thing: The man who called her his “roommate” and wrote her love letters in their fifth decade of marriage was going to leave her—slowly, painfully, bit by bit.
So began what she called her husband’s “long goodbye,” which was, for her, ten years of exacting caregiving, hurried lunches with friends, ever-briefer phone calls to the outside world, hours spent with old love letters, and advocacy for research into the disease that was taking Ronnie from her. The story of her devotion was in a way grim and unrelieved but also tender and loving. The woman once mocked as a Lady Who Lunched showed more true grit than any cowboy Ronald Reagan ever played.
The former president himself had seen how difficult his descent would be, and as always, his first thoughts had been of Nancy. “Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s disease progresses,” he wrote in his last letter to the country, “the family often bears a heavy burden. I only wish there was some way I could spare Nancy from this painful experience. When the time comes I am confident that with your help she will face it with faith and courage.”
Nancy’s “faith and courage” were on display as she led the nation in mourning her husband, who died on June 5, 2004, at the age of 93. Under the Capitol Dome, she kissed his coffin. She stood there, a solitary figure, an 82-year-old woman who had lost the love of her life.
The woman once mocked as a Lady Who Lunched showed more true grit than any cowboy Ronald Reagan ever played.
She never liked to be apart from him. In 1981, the night before she flew to England alone to attend the wedding of Prince Charles and Diana Spencer, Nancy wept at the thought of being away from Ronnie for a few days. At the White House, the first lady was portrayed in the media as a hard woman, a fashionista who plotted to fire her husband’s aides. The real insiders knew better; they understood she could be determined and even relentless but also emotionally fragile. She seemed to carry all her husband’s cares for him. “She never slept much; he did,” recalled a close friend. “He never worried about anything; she worried about everything.”
But on June 11, 2004, a day of liturgy and ceremony before her husband’s final rest, she was determined to be stoic and serene. In the long, creeping darkness of his disease, he had slowly drifted away, even from her. Now she was bringing him back into the sunlit realm of symbol and legend. Not since Jacqueline Kennedy had a first lady better grasped her husband’s myth and worked with such craft and devotion to enlarge and enshrine it.
At the funeral, Nancy was determined not to lose control. Her face seemed frozen at times. Speaking in the National Cathedral, George H. W. Bush told a story about his old boss’s charm. Bush recounted how Reagan was once asked, “How did your visit go with Bishop Tutu?” The president responded, “So-so.” The heads of state and media bigwigs and Hollywood types roared. Nancy’s mask dissolved, and she chuckled softly, a bit ruefully. We all did, recalling for a moment when it was morning in America…
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This article is originally from Reader Digest. Our dedication to Nancy Reagan – a courageous woman and an amazing wife/caregiver to her husband. Thank you for your contribution to Alzheimer’s Research.
Clift,. “Remembering Nancy Reagan’s Courageous Fight for Alzheimer’s Research” Newsweek. Reader’s Digest Megazine. June 2016. June 8, 2016.