I’ll be the first to admit that I was not a great fan of Nancy Reagan when she was the First Lady. It wasn’t so much that I disliked her as the fact that she simply didn’t impress me. My mother, on the other hand, saw her as a quintessential woman. She was in awe of Nancy and often commented that those of us in the younger generation would do well to learn from her. My mom and Nancy were from the same generation so I suppose they understood one another more so than I was capable of doing. It was only after Nancy Reagan had left the White House that I realized what an strong and caring person she really was.
During the Reagan presidency Nancy was certainly an elegant well mannered woman. She always seemed a bit shy which is a trait with which I easily identify. She appeared uncomfortable being in the public eye but she carried out her duties because she believed that her husband had something to give the nation. Almost every First Lady adopts a cause and hers was taking on the drug culture. In retrospect she may not have approached the problem exactly right but she did attempt to bring our attention to a growing problem. Today’s research is only beginning to shed light on the difficulties of conquering an addiction. We now know that the brain and genetics of those who become hooked on drugs and alcohol are different from most of us. We have learned that beating an addiction is terribly difficult. As scientists get more and more information we move closer to perhaps one day finding a cure for this affliction. Sadly back in the eighties we tended to believe that those who became hopeless slaves of drugs were somehow lacking in character rather than being ill. Many have hurled epithets at Nancy Reagan for her part in the “Just Say No” campaign but few of us thought any differently than she did. Her intentions were good and she grew up in an era that was quite different from today.
I never really realized just how close President Reagan came to dying after he was shot in an assassination attempt. It was quite frightening for Nancy but somehow she set her fears aside for the sake of the nation. She understood that she had to share her husband with the rest of us. I was still a bit too young and focused on my own life to think much of Mrs. Reagan and the tremendous sacrifices that she made but my mother seemed to completely comprehend how she must have been feeling.
It was when we all learned that President Reagan had Alzheimer’s disease that I began to take notice of Nancy. I had spent all of my adult life watching over my mother during the times when her mental illness became severe. I had a firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be a caretaker. I had experienced the sacrifices and concerns and even sleepless nights that come with being responsible for an adult who is too out of it to even cooperate. Somehow Nancy Reagan became quite real to me when I realized that she was utterly devoted to her husband. I saw the strength in her that my mother had noticed long before. Mostly, I witnessed her unconditional love for her Ronnie.
There were many stories regarding the isolation that Mrs. Reagan so willingly endured during the years when her husband grew progressively worse. A time came when he would not even remember that he was married to her but he would tell people that she was very pretty and that she was his girlfriend. For her part, Nancy was ever so gentle with him. She protected him from prying eyes and gave him all of her heart and soul.
When President Reagan died I was touched by the intense grief that Nancy displayed. It was apparent that she had lost the love of her life. There have been few public figures who managed to be so utterly devoted to one another as Nancy and Ronnie. I think that my mother saw in them the kind of marriage that she might have had if my father had lived longer. It was similar in intensity to the love story of my own grandparents. Years after my grandmother had died my grandfather would speak of her as if she had been the most remarkable woman who had ever lived. He adored her and she him. That is the feeling that I had about Nancy and Ronnie Reagan.
We didn’t hear much about Mrs. Reagan after her husband died. Once in awhile someone would photograph her visiting the President’s grave. She grew older and frailer but remained quite beautiful. She was a tiny woman who had enormous courage.
My generation was rather rebellious. Our mothers, however, were mostly traditional. They were the last of a breed. Some of my friends are still lucky enough to have their moms still here. Like Nancy Reagan they are often described as being selfless and even known as angels. They didn’t want too much more out of life than the knowledge that the members of their family would be safe and happy. They were the kind of people who gave their all to making that possible. As their generation slowly dies we are losing some wonderful role models who might teach us a thing or two about living just as my mother suggested when I was still a bit self absorbed.
I was quite sad to hear that Nancy Reagan had died but I also somehow felt happy for her. She is back with her Ronnie once again which is no doubt where she has longed to be for many years now. I can almost see his great big grin as he saw her entering the Pearly Gates. Now his mind is clear again and all of the pain that they both experienced is gone.
I’m appalled that some people who never took the time to find out more about Nancy Reagan have been tweeting some incredibly insulting comments. They need instead to ask themselves how well they would do if they suddenly found themselves caring for someone whose mind was slowly but surely slipping away. Would they be as unflinchingly wonderful as she was for her Ronnie? Would they be able to shut themselves away with someone who didn’t even know who they were from time to time?
Nancy Reagan showed us the meaning of love. In the end her life was not about politics. It was about being steadfast and willing to sacrifice. She was a good woman.