Skip to comments.COMMENTARY: End of the Long Goodbye?
Posted on 02/05/2004 9:29:24 PM PST by Reagan Man
On Feb. 6, Ronald Reagan turns 93. He unknowingly continues to extend his streak as the longest-living president an accomplishment that has brought little personal celebration. It has been a Pyrrhic victory. This is expected to be his last birthday.
If Reagan could comprehend his current state, he might ponder two questions: why and where? He might consider why he must endure Alzheimer's disease, and where will be the next stage in his journey once his amazingly strong body now his worst enemy stops breathing. I believe I can provide some insight into how Reagan might answer those questions. I've spent the last few years carefully studying precisely these matters from Reagan's perspective.
The two most important people in Ronald Reagan's life were women. Nancy's role, of course, is well known. Less appreciated was the influence of his mother, Nelle. Nelle instilled in her boy the ideals that shaped him. It was pious Nelle who tirelessly inculcated her son with a set of unshakable and unappreciated (by the public) religious values that sustained him throughout his life.
Nelle taught her son that God has a plan that always works for the best and he never doubted that. Reagan, remember, was the eternal optimist. And his optimism was a blessing for which he was grateful to God. He called it a "God-given optimism." In his late 30s, he wrote an article that he concluded with a two-verse quote from a poem: "God's in His Heaven, All's right with the world."
Reagan contemplated death many times how it might come and how to graciously accept it. He hated to fly. Every time he got in a plane he prayed. "Do you pray that the plane won't crash?" his daughter Patti logically asked him. "No," he answered. "I pray that whatever God's will is, I'll be able to accept it with grace, and have faith in His wisdom. We're always in God's hands. Sometimes it's hard to accept that, so I pray that He'll help me just to trust in His will." He instructed his daughter: "[W]hen we die is God's business"-as is how we die.
He was spared that sort of violent death. It turns out he never needed to fear an airplane crash-nor the bullet that lodged inches from his heart in 1981. Rather than praying for grace as a plane plunged to the earth, he went out unaware of his method of dying and unaware of his very self. Still, Reagan believed that God's choice of how we leave this world is the best choice.
Reagan wrote a November 1982 letter to a friend whose wife had just died. "It isn't given to us to understand the why of such things," said the president. "We can only trust in God's infinite mercy and in His purpose that we go on to a better life where there is no pain or sorrow. Believe in that and have faith in His wisdom."
His son, Michael, is one of a small circle permitted to visit him in these final days. "I sit with him, grab his hand, and silently pray," says Michael, whose unresponsive dad no longer squeezes his hand in return. "I pray that God takes him and relieves him of his situation. God does what He believes is best. My dad always believed that."
Ronald Reagan's last days are very similar to his mother's. Nelle ebbed away from what the Reagan family termed "senility"-what we today would likely diagnose as Alzheimer's. Nelle and her boy not only shared the same faith but the same fate.
Nelle's son explained that her passing was for the best, particularly because of her mental state-an attitude he bequeathed to his own son. "I know where my dad is going," said Michael. "When he dies, I'll have no reason to be sad. I'll be saddened that he'll be leaving this place. But I'm overjoyed over where he's going. I guarantee he would be overjoyed-thrilled."
Death might be viewed as simply that final "twist" or "fork" in the road Reagan incessantly spoke of, by which, Nelle taught him, things seemed bad but were just a precursor to brighter skies. If that bad thing hadn't happened, Reagan always insisted, neither would that good thing later.
Though Alzheimer's is a tragic final stage, Reagan would surely view it as a transition to something better-to a rainbow waiting around the bend. No matter what Ronald Reagan was robbed of by that evil called Alzheimer's, the disease can't take that away from him.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College, Pennsylvania, and a visiting fellow with the Hoover Institution. His latest book is "God and Ronald Reagan."
He's had at least ten "last birthdays."
He may have a few more.
Either way, God bless him.
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