Exploring Human Potential

Remembering My Parents and the Reagan’s

Posted on | March 7, 2016 | 3 Comments

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Mike Magee

The words on the May 7, 1992, University of Pennsylvania report, signed by psychiatrist Gary Gottlieb, could hardly have been more definitive. They read, “Dr. Magee’s pattern of results suggests moderate to severe diffuse global impairment with functions mediated by the temporal and frontal lobes being affected to a greater degree. His performance on measures of higher cortical functioning appear to be consistent with a primary degenerative disorder such as Senile Dementia of Alzheimer’s Type (SDAT).”

The verdict was not a surprise, and still it was shocking to see it there on the page in black and white. My mother had quietly hidden my father’s growing disorientation and memory difficulties for quite some time. I had first noticed some mild changes at a celebration of my father’s 75th birthday in Florida three years earlier. In the past year, he had become more and more forgetful, and had gotten lost several times while driving. Lately he was intermittently confused, and repeating events and questions over and over. He was more easily frustrated, even dazed at times. My mother knew something was very wrong, and knew she finally needed help.

On the West Coast, another woman of similar age and disposition was noticing similar changes in her own husband. He too had been a remarkably capable individual, with a large following of devotees; a man quick to smile and converse with strangers; a man capable of inspiring hope and confidence with his social skills and aptitude; a man who also enjoyed being front and center, “on the stage”. His name was Ronald Reagan.

The two couples had never met each other, yet their similarities were striking. For both, their marriage, and commitment to each other was paramount. Both marriages would last 52 years, interrupted only by the death of a spouse – in one case the wife, in the other the husband.  Both wives would be the primary caregivers and protectors of their husbands, only grudgingly accepting support and help, remaining the primary and final arbiter, “until death do us part”.

In describing their marriage, one of the men wrote, “I more than love you, I’m not whole without you. You are life itself to me. When you are gone I’m waiting for you to return so I can start living again.” And his wife later explained, “If either of us ever left the room, we both felt lonely. People don’t always believe this, but it’s true. Filling the loneliness, completing each other – that’s what it still meant to us to be husband and wife.”

Both couples raised strong-willed children. But in both cases, there was a clear demarcation between parent and child, and no question about the supremacy of love. Their love for each other came first. Any good that they had to offer, in their eyes, whether for their children or others, flowed from that.

My parents connection to the Reagan’s was well established by the time the young psychiatrist, Gary Gottlieb, evaluated my father that Thursday morning. During his campaign for a second term as President in 1984, to my distress, my parents taped a color picture of Ron and Nancy to the front window of our home to proclaim their support for the “First Couple”.

Years later, the experience that Nancy Reagan and my mother shared, as a spouse who was the primary caregiver of an Alzheimer’s patient, was one that is at once indescribable, and at the same time ubiquitous today throughout human societies. As my parent’s child, quite independent of politics, it is easy for me to identify with the heavy burden as described in the final days by the Reagan’s daughter Patty.

She wrote: “My father is dying. Only a few days left now. Maybe a week. Maybe his soul is already gone. It looks like that—blue chalk eyes, more like a child’s drawing than real eyes. No life in them, just existence.

It’s been 10 years since the diagnosis. Alzheimer’s. A disease that arrives with death as its soulmate. I thought I was prepared. So many waves of grief have crashed over me during these years. But now I think there is another diving-down place that’s still waiting for me. Two days ago my father’s eyes stopped opening at all, his hand is as pale as the blanket covering him and sometimes his breath just stops as seconds pass by and I wonder and hold my own breath. My father is dying and it feels like I’ve never thought about it before. Even though I’ve been living with the thought for a decade.

My father’s voice fell silent weeks ago. Until then the sound of his voice hummed through the room sometimes—not with words, but maybe they were words to him. I said to my mother, maybe he’s getting us used to the silence. She lives with all that silence, with the ticking by of minutes and the knowledge that death has to be better than ragged breathing and chalk blue eyes.

Her husband is dying. The man she loved for 52 years. Here is a snapshot of the waiting: A daughter holding her mother while she weeps, tears staining skin, a body shaking with so much pain you think if you were at the center of the earth you could probably feel it. My mother is tiny, her weight against me light, the back of her head is cupped in my hand. But her grief is huge and so heavy it pulls on the joints of my body. It will be okay, I tell her. But I have no idea if it will be.”

Had my father publicly disclosed his disease, at the time of diagnosis, I am sure he would have included a paragraph that mirrored Ronald Reagan’s open letter to America.(76) It read, “Unfortunately, as Alzheimer’s Disease progresses, 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.”

As with my father, Reagan’s love for his wife was paramount. He stated it succinctly at the dedication of his Presidential Library, “Put simply, my life really began when I met her and has been rich and full ever since.” As with my father, after his diagnosis, life, ever so slowly, slipped away. Reagan’s last visit to his California ranch for a ride in his open Jeep with the vanity license plate, GIPPER, came in August, 1995.  At around this time, the former First Lady commented that “It’s very lonely. Not being able to share memories is an awful thing. There really isn’t much you can do… and that’s the frustrating part of it. You know it isn’t going to get better, there’s only one way it can go. So you have to recognize that, and it’s very hard to watch.”  Certainly my mother would agree.

Ronald Reagan died a peaceful death on June 15, 2004.  Some time later, Nancy commented, “If a death can be peaceful and lovely, that one was. And when it came down to what we knew was the end, and I was on one side of the bed with Ron, and Patty was on the other side, and Ronnie all of a sudden turned his head and looked at me and opened his eyes and just looked … Well, what a gift he gave me at that point… I learned a lot from Ronnie, while he was sick – a lot. I learned patience. I learned how to accept something that was given to you, and how to die.”

My mother’s experience was different. She was not at my father’s side. She was not there to accept one last loving gaze, one final silent message of thanks and gratitude. My father died on September 15, 1998, under the loving care of my older brother, Bill, his wife, Kathy, and their family. My father no doubt felt my mother’s absence, as he continuously wondered aloud, “Where’s Grace?” But she was gone. On the morning she died, on December 9, 1995, she dressed and prepared my father for his ride to the Alzheimer Day Center. Once safely on his way, with the company of my sister, Kathy, a nurse, who by chance was visiting them at the time, she lay down on their couch and quietly and unceremoniously died, the victim of ovarian cancer whose diagnosis had been tragically delayed by inattention to herself while she labored in the service of her husband.


3 Responses to “Remembering My Parents and the Reagan’s”

  1. Remembering My Parents and the Reagan’s – Donald M. Hayes Blog
    March 7th, 2016 @ 2:39 pm

    […] post Remembering My Parents and the Reagan’s appeared first on […]

  2. gail hunt
    March 9th, 2016 @ 9:12 am

    Wow, what a powerful message about the toll Alzheimer’s Disease takes on the family. Almost poetic. Thanks you for sharing about your parents and making the link to the Reagans.

  3. Mike Magee
    March 9th, 2016 @ 9:18 am

    Thanks, Gail. Appreciate the kind words, especially coming from a great leader in this realm.

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