Ronald Reagan: My Disappearing Dad

Alzheimer’s, more than any other disease, sends entire families, even presidential ones, adrift on unfamiliar seas with no way to navigate the journey. One former first daughter recalls the unfamiliar tides.

by Patti Davis • columnist
patti davis with ronald reagan image
Patti Davis with her father, President Ronald Reagan, share a moment at the White House.
Photograph: Courtesy Ronald Reagan Library

My family’s journey ended on a June day, just as the thick morning fog had burned off and the sun was coming through. It ended in the room where my father had been bedridden for three years, in a moment of stunning beauty when he opened his eyes one last time and looked at my mother. Then he was gone.

Except no one is ever really gone – he taught me that, too.

He lived a huge life and left much behind – a soaring legacy and historical changes that students and scholars will study for years to come. But he also left behind a daughter who, once again, learned about tides and unpredictable seas. With all the regrets I have in my life, that ten-year odyssey when Alzheimer’s chose my family was one thing I got right, because I trusted what my father had taught me in the brighter, easier days when we were all younger and didn’t know what time had in store for us.

We carry on people’s memories in different ways. I feel my father’s presence every time I try and ease the loneliness of someone else’s journey. I see again his eyes opening, twinkling the way they always did when he felt all was right with the world, and I remember him telling me that God has a reason for everything – we just don’t always know what it is.

The night before he died, I sat outside looking at the nearly full moon. We knew the end was close and I felt like death was the harbor that would end the long voyage we’d been on. In a way it did. But I know now that it isn’t really a voyage with an end. I’m still discovering what I learned in those years - what I held onto, and what I had to let go of.

I had to trust in faith and let go of certainty. I held onto what my father had taught me about tides – don’t fight them. Understand them, go with them, figure out how to slip out of them before they carry you out to sea. We’re not always meant to understand this life, he said, we’re meant to trust that beyond the deepest mysteries and the harsh blows of fate, there is a reason, and someday our souls will understand.

Patti Davis, daughter of the late President Ronald Reagan, is the author of eight books, two of which were national best-sellers. Her most recent book, The Lives Our Mothers Leave Us, was published by Hay House in 2009. The Long Goodbye, her memoir about losing her father to Alzheimer’s, published in 2005, has just been re-released as an e-book.

First Published November 23, 2011

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