Memories & Reflections
Today is a day full of sad memories, offering an opportunity to reflect on what once was and what it teaches us today.
It was 40 years ago today that Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in Los Angeles, the night he won the California Democratic Party primary. I lived in Southern California at that time and recall turning on the radio the next morning to hear who had won the race…only to hear the awful news. It was a dark time in America, occurring only two months after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Ronald Reagan was governor of California on that fateful night in June and Paul Kengor comments on the grace in Reagan’s response to that horrible moment…and his calling out of the linkage to the real enemy at that time, communism.
Today is also the 4th anniversary of Reagan’s death. His once-estranged daughter, Patti Davis, has written these words about her father:
…the fourth anniversary of my father’s death. For anyone who has lost a loved one, those anniversaries are both sad and sweet. The sadness is obvious—you don’t stop missing the person who has gone; you don’t stop wishing you’d had one more year, one more day. The sweetness sneaks up on you. It comes in the form of memories, some of them long buried. But mostly it comes with the realization that nothing ever dismantled the love between you, even though many things seemed to along the way.
At this time of year in California, the jacaranda trees are blooming. On some streets, there is a canopy of purple above and a blanket of purple blossoms on the pavement below. Jasmine is also blooming; the soft perfume lingers in the air. If I didn’t have a calendar, I would still know that this anniversary was upon us. Jacaranda and jasmine will always be the background palette of that time.
As similar as my experience is to anyone else’s who has lost a parent, it is also different because my family lived in the public eye. Because the country grieved along with us when my father died…
It seems valuable, I think, in these thorny political times, to remember why so many people mourned so deeply when Ronald Reagan died. It had nothing to do with politics, but rather with the quality of his character. It had to do with his goodness, his dignity—qualities that we as a nation are hungry for. We know we need leadership, but we also know we need compassion. We’re sick to death of meanness and sniping, yet we’ve also grown accustomed to it.
My father would be perplexed by the overabundance of meanness in the political field. And he would be deeply saddened by it. His wish, I think, would be that we as a country turn our backs on the vitriol that has become too commonplace and demand that the “race” for president become a dignified one, as archaic as that may sound these days.
A friend who recently lost her mother said to me, “Death distills everything.” It’s true. I, like many people, live with regrets that will never lessen—the times I lashed out at my father, refused to appreciate him or consider his feelings, his point of view. I envy those who can say after a parent’s death that they don’t have remorse—I just don’t know too many people like that.
But regrets can lead you to a profound awareness of what’s important, what’s meaningful. Since I do share my father with America and with the world, how he lived his life—not just as a politician, but as a man—has resonance for all of us.
He believed that words can wound, that even in the harsh, muckraking world of politics, it simply isn’t right to insult another person. He believed that this country’s greatness came from its collective heart, from its history of being a “melting pot” and that the dark passages of our history came when we lost sight of our own heart. He had no tolerance for racism. He was raised in a home where people were never judged by the color of their skin. He was raised in a home where everyone was considered a child of God, and he carried that belief with him throughout his life.
Politics aside, I think most Americans long for those qualities in a president, particularly in these uncertain times.
When we were in Washington, D.C., for my father’s service, I was taken on a tour of the White House. I hadn’t been there since he was president, and in those years I couldn’t appreciate it–I was too blinded by my own saga of being a very reluctant First Daughter.
But four years ago, in June, I finally understood the reverence my father felt for that building—for its history, its memories, its significance. To walk through the White House and really absorb the environment is to remember that this country was founded on the idea of respect for life, truth and freedom. It was also founded out of rebellion, but that did not diminish the dignity the Founding Fathers brought to the task.
My father’s dignity didn’t die four years ago, and neither did our longing for it. The anniversary of his death may best be marked by reflecting on how he lived his life.
Julie Ponzi reflects on the philosophical conflict within some of Patti Davis’ words:
His daughter, Patti Davis, reflects upon the man who was her father and why, after all the struggle and heartache, she could not help but love him. I think it is always wise to listen to the reflections of a daughter upon the character of her father. For one thing, there are few people in this life who have more of an interest in understanding the character of a man than his daughter. So she’s been at the job for a long time, had better access to him and–though she admits to willful misunderstanding in the past–seems to be coming to a deeper, better, and more mature understanding of him now. Of course, there is a temptation on her part to wish to see him rediscovered as the ultimate and true liberal in her understanding of the term. If we’re using a small “l,” I think I’d give her that.
She’s right that the man she knew could not possibly be the caricature painted by his political enemies–the racist and the heartless man they said he was. But you can see from this piece that she is still struggling to circle the square–to make his politics fit with the character of the man she loved. They do . . . but she doesn’t quite see how, so instead she dismisses them and talks instead of attitudes in politics and graciousness and demeanor and just “being nice.” It’s a start.
Of course, in America, being a true “liberal” means you’re actually a conservative. What is it that we’re trying to conserve, after all? We are trying to conserve the ideas of Revolution . . . and it’s no accident that people talked of a “Reagan Revolution.” Perhaps one day Patti will come to see that as well. And perhaps not. No matter. She gives us a beautiful reflection on the soul of the man and, though (perhaps) she misses the larger picture, she is not wrong about his good nature and his inability to be “mean.” We do miss that. We ought, always, to do our best to imitate it and so honor the man who deserves our admiration and respect. Rest in peace, Ronald Reagan.
Four years ago, at the time of his death, Davis also wrote some touching words about her father – presented in the Extended Entry below – which, by comparison, show how her own feelings have evolved and deepened with time.
Davis’ poignant reflections remind us how human relationships are like marathons, not sprints, where the underlying goodness in a human being, if practiced with constancy and love, can shine through and win the day over time…no matter how many obstacles exist in the near-term.
RIP, Robert Kennedy and Ronald Reagan.
Patti Davis in 2004:
…My father was always more accessible when he was teaching his children through stories.
Thirty-five years later, I would walk beside him along the beach, after he had already begun slipping into the shadows of Alzheimer’s. A dark thief, it steals portions of a person, leaves remnants behind. He looked up at a flock of seagulls soaring overhead and his eyes followed them, shining with something I couldn’t decipher, but which I interpreted as longing.
The years between those two events were often war-torn, weighed down with sorrow–with words he found difficult to say and words I wish I’d never said.
My father was a shy man; he wasn’t demonstrative with his children. His affection didn’t announce itself with strong embraces of dramatic declaration. We had to interpret it. Like delicate calligraphy, it required patience and a keen eye, attributes I had to acquire. I was not born with them.
Eventually, I grew beyond the girl who wanted more from her father than he was able to give. I began to focus on the gifts he gave me. He taught me to talk to God, to read the stars, respect the cycles of nature. I am a strong swimmer and a decent horsewoman because of him. I plucked from the years the shiniest memories, strung them together. It’s what you do with someone who is always a bit out of reach. You content yourself with moments; you gather them, treasure them. They are the gemstones of the years you shared.
I returned to my family, the prodigal child, in October 1994, two months before my father disclosed to the world that he had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. It’s been reported that his disease brought us back together. That’s not quite true–it happened earlier, when my mother and I laid down the armaments of our long dispiriting war, allowing the rest of the family to breathe easier, drift toward one another. But the chronology doesn’t really matter; the coming together does. I returned in time to say goodbye to my father, to witness his steady withdrawal from this world.
Losing a parent is an experience that has no comparison. Like childbirth, it exists beyond the realm of language: our words strive, but never completely describe it. At first, grief carries you out like a tide to an ending you always knew would come, but couldn’t possibly be prepared for. With a long, relentless illness like Alzheimer’s, you remember every detail of the journey, every slow mile you traveled.
Hope dies along the way–the hope that things will someday change between you and your parent; you’ll be less hesitant, perhaps, with each other, more open. During the last couple of years, I would sit beside my father, silence floating between us, knowing that we would never be any more to each other than we were right then.
I don’t know whether the loss is easier or harder if a parent is famous; maybe it’s neither. My father belonged to the country. I resented the country at times for its demands on him, its ownership of him. America was the important child in the family, the one who got the most attention. It’s strange, but now I find comfort in sharing him with an entire nation. There is some solace in knowing that others were also mystified by him; his elusiveness was endearing, but puzzling. He left all of us with the same question: who was he? People ask me to unravel him for them, as if I have secrets I haven’t shared. But I have none, nothing that you don’t already know. He was a man guided by internal faith. He knew our time on this earth is brief, yet he cared deeply about making his time here count. He was comfortable in his own skin. A disarmingly sunny man, he remained partially in shadow; no one ever saw all of him. It took me nearly four decades to allow my father his shadows, his reserve, to sit silently with him and not clamor for something more.
I have learned, over time, that the people who leave us a little bit hungry are the people we remember most vividly. When they are alive, we reach for them; when they die, some part of us follows after them. My father believed in cycles–the wheel of birth, and life, and death, constantly turning. My hand was tiny when he held it in his and led me to a blackened field weeks after a fire had burned part of our ranch. He showed me green shoots peeking out of the ashes. New life. I let go of his hand for too long, pushed it away, before finally grasping it again, trusting that even in his dying, I would find new life.