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Reagan's family await merciful release

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  • Kipup2@aol.com
    The Sunday Times by Sarah Baxter HE was a key figure in ripping down the iron curtain and ending the cold war, which brought the 20th century to a close
    Message 1 of 1 , Jan 15, 2003
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      The Sunday Times
      by Sarah Baxter

      HE was a key figure in ripping down the iron curtain
      and ending the cold war, which brought the 20th century to a
      close with America as the only superpower. Yet Ronald Rea-
      gan's horizons have shrunk to his bedside as Alzheimer's
      disease ravages his mind.

      Michael Reagan, his elder son, believes that death
      would be a merciful release for the former American presi-

      "It's time for him to go. It's very sad," he said in an
      interview. "I'm going to hate the day Dad dies. You think
      you are ready for it, but you never are. But I sometimes
      pray that if God wants to take him home, then take him

      Reagan, 91, sleeps on and off for 18 hours a day,
      according to his son. He was always a sound sleeper, even
      when his policies were under attack in the 1980s.

      His waking hours are a nightmare of befuddlement.

      Reagan fell in the bedroom of his Bel Air home in
      California in January 2001, broke a hip and has been bedrid-
      den ever since. He is fed, washed and cared for 24 hours a
      day by medical staff, but can neither leave his bed, even
      for the most basic functions, nor make himself understood.

      "Some days are better than others but they are all sad
      days. You see a man who is referred to as the Great Communi-
      cator and he can't communicate because he doesn't know who
      he is. He talks gibberish," said his son.

      Reagan does not know that his daughter Maureen died
      last August of melanoma at the age of 60. On the day of her
      funeral he stayed at home. "You wouldn't have wanted to tell
      him," said Michael. "Even if he could comprehend, he would
      have no way of expressing his feelings."

      Michael, 57, was adopted as a baby by Reagan and his
      first wife, the actress Jane Wyman. According to family
      legend three-year-old Maureen was in a Hollywood chemist's
      when the pharmacist asked what she wanted. She put 97 cents
      on the counter and said: "I want a baby brother." Her birth
      had been difficult, so the family chose to adopt.Today
      Reagan's son is a radio chat show host in California who
      buried some of his family demons with an autobiography more
      than a decade ago. The children had many run-ins with their
      emotionally distant father but Michael now visits him once a
      month. "He doesn't know me, but I go there for Nancy, to
      show up. I hug and kiss him," he said.

      "In some ways I go there out of guilt. We're not like
      every family I was at boarding school from the age of five,
      so I'm seeing him more than I used to. It's the way our
      family works, by appointment it's always been by appoint-

      Nancy, who was 81 in July, still looks at Reagan ador-
      ingly, said Michael. She wants others to remember him the
      way he was but even she confessed last week that she was
      lonely. She was not sure that her husband knew her any more
      and said: "When you come right down to it, you're in it
      alone and there's nothing anybody can do for you."

      The strain is beginning to tell on her. "She's frail,"
      said Michael. "She's much frailer than she would have been
      because of Dad's illness. She's a professional worrier.
      She's always carried a burden of some sort. She worries
      about what people are saying about Dad, about his place in

      "I worry that when Dad goes Nancy won't be far behind
      because she lives and breathes for Dad." She need have no
      fear about history's verdict on Reagan, whose virtues are
      frequently invoked in this post-September 11 world.

      "George W is closer to my father's ideology than he is
      to his father's," said Michael, who believes that the Sep-
      tember 11 attacks would not have happened under Reagan. "He
      responded to the Muammar Gadaffis. They knew where he
      stood." Despite backing Bush, he thinks his father would
      have disapproved of the "giant conversation" under way over

      Libya was bombed in 1986 after a terrorist attack on
      Americans in West Berlin. "Dad didn't hold a press confer-
      ence saying what we'll do with Gadaffi. He just did it,"
      said Michael.

      Reagan's descent into Alzheimer's was remarkably rapid
      after he left the White House in 1989 and soon became impos-
      sible to conceal.

      Michael said Reagan's great ally, Margaret Thatcher,
      was guest of honour at a birthday party for him in 1993.

      "Dad gave Maggie a great introduction, as he always
      did, and she got a standing ovation. Then the applause
      stopped and Dad reintroduced her. Everybody stood up and
      applauded again as if nothing had happened.

      "After that Nancy and Dad felt it was time to start
      thinking about getting the word out about Alzheimer's."

      In 1994 Reagan published a touching letter about his
      plight in which he said: "I only wish I could spare Nancy
      from the painful experience."

      He could not. By 1997 he was still active some golf,
      walking on the beach but his mind was faltering. He would
      spend hours sweeping leaves from the swimming pool and his
      secret servicemen would quietly put them back, simply to
      keep him occupied.

      Every now and then he would show a flash of insight,
      his son recalled. "My daughter Ashley hugged him and said,
      "Grandpa, I love you." He looked directly at me and said in
      a full voice, "You know why I'm hugging her? Because she's a
      she." He'd remembered how Michael had complained about his
      lack of hugs as a child.

      Now Michael understands that Reagan was a typical post-
      war father. At the time, however, the children were often
      unforgiving and even today the family is politically divid-

      At the launch of the battleship USS Ronald Reagan last
      year, Nancy's children Patti Davis and Ron Reagan stayed
      away. "They're the 1960s generation, the liberals. To them
      the ship was a killing machine," said Michael. "I felt sorry
      for Nancy that day. She fought hard to have the ship commis-
      sioned before my father died. It had never been done in
      anybody's lifetime before, so it was an honour. I was there
      with my wife and children. George W Bush was there.

      "Nancy and I have not always had the greatest of rela-
      tionships and I began to wonder if the problem was not that
      she's so angry with me but that she's jealous that the Wyman
      kids Maureen and I would show up no matter what was going on
      in the family."

      Maureen was Nancy's chief support until she succumbed
      to her own illness. In the past year Patti has grown closer
      to her mother and believes the reconciliation makes her
      father happy. Nancy said last week: "She thinks he has a
      feeling of the two of us together. As she says, his soul
      doesn't have Alzheimer's."

      Michael is grateful. "When Maureen passed away, Patti
      stepped up and she's there with her mother all the time.
      It's been good for Nancy and it's great for Patti. She's
      finally getting close to Dad."

      Maureen sacrificed her own health, Michael believes, by
      campaigning non-stop for an Alzheimer's cure instead of
      fighting her cancer.The time is nearing when Reagan will
      join her. "Maureen has been waiting for him for a year and
      has probably got a good spot for him beside her. She'd love
      it. No brothers, no sisters, no moms. Just her and Dad." For
      Michael, it is a consoling thought.

      [Non-text portions of this message have been removed]
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