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Patti Davis is the daughter of the late U.S. President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan. Her essay below first appeared in Maria Shriver’s Sunday Paper, a free weekly digital newsletter for people with passion and purpose.
On June 5, 2004, as a dense fog burned off, my father took his last breath. Moments before that breath, he opened his eyes, which he hadn’t done in nearly a week. And they were blue again, which they hadn’t been in more than a year. As Alzheimer’s conquered more and more of him over a 10-year period, they had faded to a dull blue-gray color.
But that day, his soul burned through the damage to his body. He showed up — his eyes twinkling, his face alert. He looked at my mother, and then he was gone. Outside, the air smelled like jasmine; it’s the time of year when white star jasmine is blooming in California. Inside the air was still and quiet. Life goes on after a death, but it goes on differently.
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Death re-arranges us — topples the walls around us and makes the floor drop out from beneath us. Sometimes, if we’re lucky, the moment of death is beautiful; my father’s death is in that category. Every year, as June approaches, I pull that moment close and examine it yet again. Because if we let it, death can teach us about living.
My grounding, my mantra for the decade of my father’s illness was my belief that his soul couldn’t have Alzheimer’s. Beyond the broken synapses in his brain, beyond the cognitive decline, beyond the words he could no longer find, I believed his soul rested and watched, as clear and pure as eternity. As he left this earth, he let me know I was right.
Throughout the years of his illness, I gave myself willingly to grieve. I turned down whatever path it pushed me onto, waded into its deepest waters, surrendered to the ebb and flow of it. I know, in Elizabeth Kubler Ross’ five stages of grief, denial is the first stage. But for some reason, I skipped that stage. I accepted from the start that I was losing my father to this mysterious pirate called Alzheimer’s, and I did what my father had taught me to do as a child — I talked to God. A lot. I know it was in that state of praying and asking God to guide me when the thought about his soul not having Alzheimer’s came to me — like a rope handed to me for the rough waters ahead. Hold onto this, I thought, and you won’t drown.
Each year, I treat the day of June 5 with unusual tenderness, and a reverence for what I was allowed to witness. I saw life and death change hands. I saw the flame of my father’s soul, unextinguished by disease. I think he would want me to mark that day in my own soul, to remember what I learned and to be grateful for the lesson. It might sound strange, but I think of June 5 as a sort of birth-day.
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