In summing up what I’ve learned about President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan from reading I Love You, Ronnie, a couple of details came to light which I’d not known before. And according to Mrs. Reagan, only those close to what occurred at the time, knew. The first dealt with the assassination attempt on the President’s life 3 months after he took office. The second was an incident that probably caused the premature onset of his Alzheimer’s. Only a handful, it seems, were privvy to both occurrences.
Waiting for news, Nancy Reagan sat with Sarah Brady, whose husband Jim had also been shot in the attempt on the President’s life.
As we waited, I looked out the window and saw how, in the buildings all around the hospital, people had thrown sheets out the window saying things like GET WELL, MR. PRESIDENT and WE LOVE YOU, MR. PRESIDENT. Every now and then, a nurse would come and report to me on Ronnie’s progress. At first, the doctors were having trouble finding the bullet, which was a devastator bullet, the kind that explodes inside. One time, the nurse came and said, “We just can’t seem to get it out. We may just have to leave it in.” Well, that didn’t sound so good to me. And then another time, she said, “They’ve found it, but the doctor is having a hard time removing it–it keeps slipping from his fingers.” Finally, she came back and told me that the doctor had gotten it out, but I almost lost him then. The bullet had been lodged an inch from Ronnie’s heart.
We were lucky–we didn’t realize how lucky, in fact–because when Ronnie had arrived, all the doctors were in the hospital for a meeting. No one had to be called in. Everyone Ronnie needed was right on hand, and there was no waiting. …
I wanted to stay there all night, but the feeling was that it would be better for the country if I left and went back to sleep at the White House. Otherwise, people would have assumed the worst and there would have been panic. As it was, Ronnie’s aides had to do all they could to calm the country down. The briefings made to the press were partial, to say the least. The assassination attempt was really a much closer call than people were led to believe at the time. Everyone was trying not to frighten the people in the country, but the fact was, Ronnie almost died. It was a miracle that he didn’t. And I knew all along how serious things really were. …
Needless to say, I was terrified. After the shooting, every time Ronnie walked out the door to make a public appearance, my heart would stop–and it wouldn’t start again until he came back home safely. Ronnie knew how scared I was. But if he was frightened too, he never let me know it. As always, he was cheerful and optimistic. God had spared him, he believed; there had to be a reason why. By making jokes…he tried to take the edge off my fear.
Who could fault the First Lady’s hovering over the President thereafter? No wonder her seeming control of his life, personal and public, for which the media liked to criticize her. I know because they had me convinced she was running the country with her husband, an unofficial cabinet member, as was constantly written and spoken of in the news. How the spinmeisters love to slant the facts. Readers, beware!
Fast forward to July 1989, after the Reagans had left the White House. Visiting with friends Betty and Bill Wilson at their ranch in Mexico, the President went riding. An accident occurred.
Ronnie had been thrown off his horse. He was riding with some other men, going up an incline, when one of the ranch hands had hit something that made a loud noise and spooked Ronnie’s horse.
The horse reared once, and Ronnie stayed on. It reared a second time, and Ronnie stayed on again. Two Secret Service men tried to move in and calm the horse, but they couldn’t do it. The horse reared a third time, bucking so hard that Ronnie fell off and hit his head on the ground, miraculously missing the jagged rocks all around.
We got him on a plane and immediately took him to a hospital in Tucson, Arizona. He should really have stayed there, but it was my birthday and the Wilsons had planned a celebration, and Ronnie was determined to go back to the ranch. We went back–but at my insistence, we took a doctor with me.
The day after…we flew home. I was very uneasy and kept at Ronnie until he agreed to get his head X-rayed. We went to the Mayo Clinic, where we’d gone every year for checkups. It turned out that Ronnie had a concussion and a subdural hematoma. He needed to be operated on right away. It all happened so quickly that I think, once again, I was in shock. …
I’ve always had the feeling that the severe blow to his head in 1989 hastened the onset of Ronnie’s Alzheimer’s. The doctors think so, too. In the years leading up to the diagnosis of the disease, in August 1994, he had not shown symptoms of the illness. I didn’t suspect that Ronnie was ill when we went back to the Mayo Clinic that summer for our regular checkup. When the doctors told us they’d found symptoms of Alzheimer’s, I was dumbfounded. Ronnie’s fall from the horse had worried me terribly, of course, and I’d had to urge him to take time out to recover after his operation. But I had seen no signs of anything else.
There’s no telling if President Reagan would have enjoyed more years of retirement, free from the debilitating symptoms of Alzheimer’s. How fragile the brain, with only the skull as protection from the hazards of everyday life…like horse back riding. Spared from the assassin’s bullet, Reagan succumbed to no less a devastating end. As his devoted wife, and true witness to her husband’s last 50 years on earth, Nancy Reagan suffered Alzheimer’s alongside him.
…First of all, there is a feeling of loneliness when you’re in this situation. Not that your friends aren’t supportive of you; they are. But no one can really know what it’s like unless they’ve traveled this path–and there are many right now traveling the same path I am. You know that it’s a progressive disease and that there’s no place to go but down, no light at the end of the tunnel. You get tired and frustrated, because you have no control and you feel helpless. We’ve had an extraordinary life, and I’ve been blessed to have been married for almost fifty years to a man I deeply love–but the other side of the coin is that it makes it harder. There are so many memories that I can no longer share, which makes it very difficult. When it comes right down to it, you’re in it alone. Each day is different, and you get up, put one foot in front of the other, and go–and love; just love.
I try to remember Ronnie telling me so many times that God has a plan for us which we don’t understand now but one day will, or my mother saying that you play the hand that’s dealt you. It’s hard, but even now there are moments Ronnie has given me that I wouldn’t trade for anything. Alzheimer’s is a truly long, long good-bye. But it’s the living out of love.
…blest by true love…even in the face of adversity…hugmamma.