Nancy’s toughest battle: the ‘Long, Long Goodbye’ to the man she loved

Nancy’s toughest battle: the ‘Long, Long Goodbye’ to the man she loved

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US: By the time Nancy Reagan sat down with Mike Wallace of “60 Minutes” in 2002, her eyes had lost their familiar gleam.

More than a decade out of the world’s largest public spotlight, hers was now a life consumed by a torturous, private struggle. Her husband’s generous spirit — once among the most commanding on Earth — had been reduced by Alzheimer’s to a passing flicker of semi-cognizance.

In the White House, she’d developed a reputation as a fierce protector of the President, even while surrounded by allies. Now the former first lady — a woman who had decades earlier said that her life didn’t begin until she met Ronald Reagan — was still protecting the love of her life.

This time, however, she was doing it on her own.

Former US First Lady Nancy Reagan and her husband, US President Ronald  Reagan, at a luncheon in New Orleans on Aug 15, 1988, honouring her for her work to combat drug abuse. – AFP

“It really is the long, long goodbye,” she told Wallace of caring for someone with Alzheimer’s, according to CBS News in 2002.

“When you come right down to it, you’re in it alone and there’s nothing that anybody can do for you,” she added, her stoic eyes turning watery. “So it’s lonely.”

Only months before the interview, Wallace noted, the Reagans had marked their 50th wedding anniversary. What should’ve been a day of celebration, Reagan told Wallace, was far more complicated for her. The hardest part, she said, was not being able to share decades of memories together.

“How I’d love to be able to talk to him about it,” she said. “There were times when I had to catch myself, because I’d reach out and start to say, “Honey, remember when . . .”

“Do you think he knows you still?” Wallace asked.

“I don’t know,” she responded. As her husband slowly slipped away, Reagan’s daughter, Patti Davis, reconnected with her mother, Wallace reported. As her parents’ struggle deepened, Davis wrote poignantly about the effect the disease was having on each of them in their own way. She measured the depth of that struggle, Wallace noted, by looking into her parents’ eyes.

“In the early stages of Alzheimer’s, the eyes have a weariness, a veil of fear,” Davis wrote, according to CBS. “I used to see my father’s eyes simultaneously plead and hold firm. Slowly, sometimes over months, sometimes over years, the eyes stop pleading. … A resignation, an acceptance of distance, strangeness, a life far from home. You know the look when you see it. And the only mercy is that the fear seems to have subsided.”

President Ronald Reagan hands a pen to First Lady Nancy, after he signed a major anti-drug bill on November 18, 1988 at the White House.

“It’s true. It’s true,” her mother told Wallace after he read the passage to her out loud. “A whole different look in eyes. Whole different look.”

Wallace noted that Reagan also had some somber observations about her mother’s eyes as well. The long goodbye, she’d noticed, was taking a toll.

“My mother’s eyes are frequently such deep wells that I have to look away,” Wallace quoted Davis as writing

“I think she means that when she looks at me, she sees a deep sadness,” Nancy Reagan replied. Reagan told Wallace that she wasn’t sure whether her husband still knew who she was. She found comfort in remembering their past and by reading letters she’d saved from their time together, letters that captured the intensity of their bond.

One love letter — written by President Reagan aboard Air Force One and cited by Wallace — laid bare the president’s attachment to his wife: “When you aren’t there I’m no place, just lost in time and space. I more than love you, I’m not whole without you.”

– THE WASHINGTON POST

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