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A Widow's Heartfelt Farewell

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By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 11, 2004

Hers is a private grief gone public.

Nancy Reagan never wanted to be anyplace except by her husband's side, friends say. In this week's elaborate tribute for the nation's 40th president, she has made her ceremonial walks clutching the arm of a stranger. But she stands alone. She has reconciled with her children, and they comfort her, but at most of the choreographed pauses in these rites, they are not in this circle of two that was Nancy and Ronnie.

Today, the 82-year-old former first lady faces her most exhausting day, a state funeral in a cathedral packed with the nation's and world's dignitaries, many of whom will want to bend and murmur their condolences, followed by a rapid departure back across the country, to a California burial before sunset.

Yesterday, sequestered with her family at Blair House, she was called on for a half-hour by President and Laura Bush and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, as well as former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and former Canadian prime minister Brian Mulroney.

"All of this ritual of mourning is good," said her biographer, Bob Colacello, yesterday. "This is on such a grand scale that the public and private have completely merged. It's a magnificent moment in history, and that has to please her."

Yet this remains a long and personal goodbye, and, in her every stroke of her husband's coffin, her friends say they see that Nancy Reagan is having trouble letting go.

"That was the relationship, that was the life, Nancy and Ronald Reagan," for 52 years, said Sheila Tate, the former first lady's press secretary. "This is her last ceremony. And, even though he was limited by Alzheimer's for the last number of years, he was still there. So the shock is still there" when death comes.

Mary Jane Wick, wife of honorary pallbearer Charles Wick, told a group of close Reagan friends gathered Wednesday night for a reminiscence dinner that the death hit Mrs. Reagan "like a ton of bricks."

In the glimpses he caught of her this week, CBS newsman Mike Wallace, Mrs. Reagan's longtime friend, thought she "looked lonesome and alone and sad. Really sort of lost." He talked with her for three hours before the former president died Saturday, he said, "and I think that she was stunned by the turn of events." Reagan had been bedridden and silent for a few weeks when pneumonia set in.

Even in those last hours, the former first lady showed a sensitivity toward the public nature of her husband's death. When Wallace called back, he chose his words carefully. "I said, 'Nancy, look, is it conceivable that it could happen this weekend?' And she said, 'Oh, yes.' " Then Wallace suggested he should perhaps alert CBS, and Mrs. Reagan said, "Yes, I think you probably should."

Her children have offered their thoughts on their father's death, daughter Patti Davis writing in both Newsweek and People magazine, stepson Michael speaking for 10 minutes as a guest on the conservative radio program he normally hosts.

"I thought I was prepared. So many waves of grief crashed over me during these years," Davis writes in the upcoming People. "But now I think there is another diving-down place that's still waiting for me." And she offered an intimate and raw emotional portrait of her mother at the end. "At the last moment, when his breathing told us this was it, he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother. Eyes that hadn't opened in days did, and they weren't chalky or vague. They were clear and blue and full of love. 'The greatest gift you could have given me,' my mother said."

The former first lady has made no statements and will not eulogize her husband today Last week, though, in the final days of Reagan's decline, she called Colacello to offer him condolences on his own father's death. "She was very sweet. She said, 'I feel sorry for you and your sisters. But it's your mother you should worry about, because the bond between husband and wife is different from the bond of any other.' And it was if she was talking about herself."

The muscle memory of eight years of pausing for photographs in the doorway of Air Force One has guided her through the ceremony of recent days. She has smiled and waved to well-wishers. Honorary pallbearer Merv Griffin told friends that on the ride from the funeral home Monday to the Ronald Reagan Library in California, Mrs. Reagan told him she was moved and surprised by the public outpouring. Traffic in the opposite direction stopped, and people jumped from their cars to wave at the motorcade. "I thought they forgot Ronnie," she said, "because nobody had seen him for 10 years."

She has been preparing for a decade for this ritual, meeting twice a year with a small group of former aides to revise details. Today's guest list for the invitation-only funeral includes about 1,000 who have been invited personally by the Reagan family, Tate said.

While she looked unsteady as she climbed the Capitol steps on Wednesday, friends said Mrs. Reagan, who will be 83 next month, is mostly in fine health, her mind sharp. After visiting with her yesterday, Mulroney said that she "looked good and looked strong."

A few years ago, she broke a few ribs when she stood up suddenly and smacked into some exercise equipment. She had been rummaging in a box on the floor, looking, characteristically, for an old picture of her husband.

She has always been a worrier -- a perfectionist who knew exactly how she wanted an event to proceed, Tate said. When police at the Capitol screamed out evacuation orders Wednesday afternoon because of an errant airplane and sent dignitaries and former Reagan aides scrambling for the exits, Tate said as she ran that she hoped Mrs. Reagan was unaware of the short crisis. "She wanted everything to be perfect. I didn't want her worrying about that."

Burnishing his legacy and advocating for an Alzheimer's cure have been the former first lady's work in the 10 years since Reagan announced to the nation that he was suffering from the disease and withdrew from public life. The woman who filled her White House state dinners with glittering Hollywood friends, dancing in her size 2 Galanos gowns with Frank Sinatra, now stayed cloistered in their Bel Air home. When she traveled at all, it was to work on projects related to his library. In 2002, she made a rare trip here to receive a Congressional Gold Medal issued to her and her husband for their service to the nation.

While she has remained a beloved icon for party leaders -- a speech at the Republican National Convention in 1996 earned her a standing ovation -- Mrs. Reagan wrote to President Bush three years ago to indicate she could not support the current administration's policy limiting embryonic stem cell research, which ome scientists hope will lead to cures for Alzheimer's and Parkinson's diseases, spinal cord injuries and other serious conditions. After that, she began to quietly work the phone, her lifelong favorite tool, calling up legislators and lobbying them for her cause.

It was last month when she acknowledged, at a Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation fundraiser, that "Ronnie's long journey has finally taken him to a distant place where I can no longer reach him. Because of this, I'm determined to do whatever I can to save other families from this pain."

Said Wallace, "I have a hunch that, depending on her health, she is going to be a little more forthcoming about what she believes and feels. She knew what her husband felt, believed and wanted, and she understands there is an opportunity for her. The American people have changed their view of her from the days of the White House china."

Colacello, whose first volume of "Ronnie and Nancy" will be published in September, has discussed what lies ahead for Mrs. Reagan with her daughter, Patti, who in the past few years has become her mother's close support, talking with her every day. "She and Nancy's friends think that Nancy will carry on. And she will be fine. But there is a worry that she has been so devoted to him, and her life has been so intertwined with him, that maybe the gap will be so difficult," he said.

First, said Tate, Nancy Reagan "has to begin to construct a life without him. And she has to come to terms with that by herself."


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