Grace Under Fire: Patti Davis on Her Father's Final Years

Throughout Ronald Reagan's battle with Alzheimer's, Davis recalls, he held on to his most essential qualities — graciousness, kindness toward others, gratitude and humility

  • Courtesy Patti Davis

    Reagan with his daughter Patti.

    Several years into my father's journey down the narrowing road of Alzheimer's, when he was still going out for walks, I looped my arm through his one afternoon and walked with him along a leafy street near my parents' home. A few people recognized him, waved and called out, "Hello, Mr. President" and "God bless you." He smiled and waved back. Then he looked at me, confused, and asked, "Do I know them?"

    No, Dad, I said. "They recognized you and wanted to say hello." He looked even more perplexed. "But how do they know me?"

    I already knew his memory of being President had been extinguished. He remembered ice skating as a boy and swimming in the Rock River in summer but not his impact on the country and the world. I didn't want to add to his confusion. "They've seen you walking here," I told him. He smiled, and his eyes lit up. "That's very sweet of them," he said. "They're nice people."

    Moments like that revealed what was most essential about my father — his graciousness, his kindness toward others, his gratitude and his humility. Even at the end, Alzheimer's didn't kill those qualities, although it killed a lot.

    I often imagine what it would be like if my father were still here to mark his 100th birthday, if Alzheimer's hadn't clawed away years, possibilities, hopes. What would he think of all the commemorations and celebrations?

    Basically a humble man, he'd be embarrassed, I suspect, although certainly flattered. He would cover his emotions with a joke — probably something about George Burns' living to 100 and how he just couldn't let George get all the glory for making it that far. I'm sure he'd be disappointed in the meanness of politics these days yet amused by all the politicians trying to adhere themselves to his legacy, even aiming to be "the next Ronald Reagan." He'd probably suggest, with a twinkle in his eye, that they should figure out who they are as individuals and be the best at that.

    But most of all, I imagine spending time with him as a daughter — and his allowing the residue of my rebellious years and the hurt I caused him to blow away like dust, maybe with a bit of humor, since I did manage to snag his attention by being the bad girl. I'd like to ask him if he was ever really fooled by me.

    I'd also like to ask him about the nearsighted boy he once was, whose father frequently disappeared on drinking binges so severe he'd pass out, often miles from home. Maybe my father would finally open up to me about the uncertainty and the waiting ... and the fear.

    Yet he had no fear, and I wish more than anything I could sit with him by a window in the dying light of day and ask him about that. How did you come from where you came from and learn to be so confident? How did you learn to trust so completely in your faith that fear didn't stand a chance? I want to tell him I remember the nights when I was a child and he traced the constellations for me, showing me Pegasus and Orion. I want to tell him that even though light-years came between us later on, I never stopped believing he hung the moon.

    My father's body lies in a stone tomb high on a hill. People walk by, pause, think their own thoughts about him and move on, back to their own lives. I can never move on. He is everywhere. I know you think I mean publicly, especially now that he would have been 100 years old. And in part, I do mean that. But what I really mean is, he lives in me on the edge of dreams. He lives in the regrets that burden me and the sweet memories that keep me afloat. There was a moment, midway through the Alzheimer's years, when I was leaving my parents' house and I said to him, "Bye. I love you." His eyes opened wide in surprise and he said, "Well, thank you. Thank you so much." He had no idea who I was. He was startled and typically gracious about another human being's telling him she loved him. I don't know if I will ever reach that level of grace, but I'm grateful for having been born to a man who did.

    Until the last three years of his life, when he became bedridden, he carried in his pocket a coin that says "Let go and let God." I keep it now in a box on my dresser. I don't know where he got it, but I'm guessing someone handed it to him when he was out walking and he looked at the message on it and thought of how lovely it was and how he related to it. Every day after that, he put it in his pocket — as a talisman, perhaps, but also to remind him of a stranger's kindness.

    He was not a perfect man. He was not a perfect father. But he tried to reach higher, to understand what God wanted of him. He was a unique person who carved out a unique place in history. I sat beside him as he died. And now he sits inside my heart as I live my life, without him but with him.