The Reagans could have done without October -- but then they could have done without 1987. Top to bottom, front to back, inside out and beginning to end, Ronald Reagan's seventh year as president has been a struggle.

"Terrible," said Nancy Reagan recently, trying -- unconvincingly -- to laugh about it. "Terrible. Next year has got to be better."

How could it be worse? His prostate surgery, the Iran-contra probes, the furor over Chief of Staff Don Regan, the Persian Gulf attacks, the aborted Supreme Court nominations, the stock market crash, the scandals involving friends and political associates -- not to mention her surgery for breast cancer, her mother's death and the resulting exposure of the long-smoldering estrangement of daughter Patti Davis.

"Well," said Nancy Reagan, settling down beside the fireplace in the White House Library 2 1/2 weeks after her mother's funeral, "overall I guess the whole year has been the roughest. The roughest single thing, of course, was Ronnie being shot {in 1981}."

But despite it all, next week -- beginning with the Monday arrival of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and his wife Raisa for three days of arms talks -- could turn out to be one of his best. Certainly it is one of his most important, and that makes it one of her most important as well. She has invited Mrs. Gorbachev for coffee and a private tour of the White House, and she will join Reagan officially in welcoming the Gorbachevs Tuesday morning and hosting them at a state dinner Tuesday night. Unofficially, of course, she will be Reagan's support, as she always has been.

Nancy Reynolds, Nancy Reagan's unofficial but willing interpreter ever since the Reagans came to Washington, had summed up the Reagan relationship a few days earlier. "They are joined at the hip, truly," she said. "And what happens to one affects the other."

Nancy Reagan of late, though, has begun to look beyond the travails of what Reynolds calls "this soap opera existence" of death, cancer, personal disappointments, political setbacks and international expectations at next week's summit. There has been an urge to talk more about the future, next year and getting back to the ranch.

As if to explain yet one more notion building about Mrs. Reagan inside the Beltway -- that she is fed up and can't wait to leave Washington -- Reynolds recounted a prediction she made last year.

"Foolishly," Reynolds said, "I said, 'Oh, the next two years are just going to go like wildfire.' "

Then, changing her voice, Reynolds mimicked Mrs. Reagan more recently: "What happened to the wildfire that was going to spread through the kingdom here?"

Reynolds trotted out the old joke about the reaction of the optimistic kid faced with a roomful of manure: "Well, there's got to be a pony in there somewhere."

Nancy Reagan considered the magnitude of the Reagans' troubles and replied: "This pony is beginning to look like a horse."

At the White House, Mrs. Reagan acknowledged that there are times when she has looked forward to going home to California permanently.

"Oh, sure, you have those -- I mean, at this point -- particularly after this year," she said, proceeding cautiously. "But then there are lots of things, you know, that I will miss. Like I missed things when I left Sacramento. I'll miss friends. And this is a lovely old home ..."

She took small consolation from something her friend, columnist George Will, wrote recently about the misery of other two-term presidents. "Eisenhower's seventh year was just awful. There was the U2; four members of his Cabinet resigned; Sherman Adams -- the vicuna coat -- he had a stroke. I mean, everything happened to him. Everything," she said.

And the lesson to be learned?

"Sit back," she said, "and expect it."

Two Black Mondays

The nadir of Nancy Reagan's roughest year came on a pair of black Mondays in October. She never suspected the chilling disclosure that first Monday, Oct. 5: She had a lump in her breast, and it might be cancerous, the doctor said. Her visit to Bethesda Naval Medical Center had been routine, for her annual checkup. But after surprise came a feeling of inevitability.

"So much had happened to him," she said of her husband's bouts with cancer and the 1981 assassination attempt, "and I just thought, 'Well, maybe the gods are up there deciding now it's my turn.' "

Three weeks later, on Monday, Oct. 26, and just 10 days into her postsurgery recuperation, came the news of her mother's death after a stroke. A few days later she learned that while she had been trying to shield Edith Luckett Davis from her own misfortune -- she had cautioned Davis' nurses to keep an eye on media coverage -- her mother had been asking for her.

"Even at the last when she really didn't know ... she kept -- they told me, and I found in the notes -- kept calling, calling for me, which just about killed me.

"We were always terribly close -- really very close -- and I adored her," she said. "But I was always sorry that I was so far away from her and I couldn't be with her more."

In some ways, Mrs. Reagan's October calendar had seemed predictable, a combination of official and private engagements starting off with the doctor's appointment in Bethesda. A tentative reading of her mammogram that first Monday had alerted John E. Hutton, the president's physician, to a tiny lesion. Hutton told Mrs. Reagan they wouldn't know until the next day if she should have a biopsy. Right then she decided she wanted breast cancer specialist Dr. Oliver Beahrs, a former student of her father's, to be there when she heard the verdict and to examine her himself.

Not until later did anybody tell her that Hutton had slipped into the Oval Office to warn the president there was a possibility she had cancer. Hutton's news had stunned Reagan -- Hutton told her he would never forget the look on his face.

"Knowing him," she said of her husband, by nature an optimist, "he probably thought 'This can't happen. It's not possible. Can't happen.' "

But on Tuesday, "it became a reality."

Joining Hutton at the White House, Beahrs, who had arrived from the Mayo Clinic, talked to her about the quarter-inch-long tumor detected in her left breast. She began to weigh her options, given her circumstances, which included a demanding schedule stretching into next year.

"If I'd been told that I should go in the next day, I would have gone in the next day," she said. But Beahrs never suggested such urgency, so she waited, scheduling surgery for 10 days later.

"There were these things that were coming up," she explained -- such longstanding commitments as the Oct. 14 state visit by Salvadoran President Jose Napoleon Duarte and the Oct. 16 New Hampshire event combining her antidrug abuse crusade and Foster Grandparents.

More immediate was that night's dinner for the crown prince and crown princess of Japan. When Reagan came home to dress, she said, "there wasn't much time to talk, really. And I think we both knew that if we started to talk, we would get upset -- and we had to go through this dinner -- and there was no point in doing that. The main thing was to just get through the dinner."

For all their years in Hollywood, that didn't come easily.

"You keep trying to push it out," she said. "And there's something -- I don't know -- kind of unreal about it, that this couldn't really be happening. You know, it's like a nightmare. It just couldn't be happening. They must have made a mistake."

The next day, Oct. 7, she flew to Chicago to accept a $100,000 cash award for the Nancy Reagan Drug Abuse Fund from the Ronald McDonald Children's Charities. She had already told her chief of staff, Jack Courtemanche; she told her two other senior aides -- press secretary Elaine Crispen and secretary Jane Erkenback -- during the flight.

"She was adamant about keeping it quiet," Crispen said. "She didn't want people treating her differently. And we discussed her decision not to tell her family so far ahead."

"There was no point in having them worried for 10 days," Mrs. Reagan said.

In fact, it wasn't until Oct. 15, the night before she entered the hospital, that the word was passed to daughter Patti Davis, daughter-in-law Doria Reagan, and stepchildren Maureen and Michael Reagan. It fell to Doria, Ron Reagan's wife, to get the word to him in the Soviet Union, where he was on location with ABC's "Good Morning America."

For Reagan, the 10-day countdown to Mrs. Reagan's surgery was interminable and agonizing. Publicly, he was taking a beating on Robert Bork's nomination, and in a speech to New Jersey Republicans he defiantly lashed back that if he had to nominate someone else, "... I'll try to find one that they'll object to as much as they did to this one." Privately, he was shaken, worried about her recovery and the effects of cancer treatments.

Not wanting to add her own anxieties to his, Nancy Reagan turned to her stepbrother, Philadelphia neurosurgeon Richard Davis, the way she once did his father, and to her ever-supportive trusted friends.

"I think anyone does when you have that kind of sudden shock," said Betsy Bloomingdale, a confidant from her California days.

Another friend said Mrs. Reagan "was scared to death, just scared to death," shortly before the biopsy. Already worrying overtime about Reagan's problems ("she always wants everything to be smooth for him," Bloomingdale said), she fretted over the way the media would play her story.

"She hated the idea of such a private thing -- every little node -- all on television," Bloomingdale said. "It's terrible for any woman's psyche and she was dreading that from the beginning."

News photos of her taken at the Oct. 14 Duarte dinner show her staring straight ahead, unsmiling. There was no hint of her preoccupation as she chatted with guests, though she made sure that one of them, fashion designer Ralph Lauren, who underwent surgery for removal of a brain tumor last spring, sat next to her at dinner.

She flew to New Hampshire the morning of Oct. 16, keeping her drug abuse-Foster Grandparents commitment. "I very much want to get those two programs together," she said.

"You wouldn't have known anything was wrong," said speech writer Landon Parvin, in whom she confided on the trip up. He noticed that only when her plane was airborne heading back to Andrews Air Force Base did she seem as if a weight had been lifted from her shoulders.

A few hours later, she, Reagan and her stepbrother climbed into the presidential helicopter for the flight to Bethesda.

"I hadn't been in a hospital since my children were born," she said. "I didn't even know what to pack." She did know to take along some family pictures -- she had hung pictures all over the room those times Reagan was in the hospital -- and hairdresser Robin Weir suggested her hot curlers.

In the hospital that night she signed the necessary papers authorizing surgery in the event the lesion proved malignant. By then she had ruled out a lumpectomy and decided upon a modified radical mastectomy, a traditional surgical procedure in which the breast and the lymph nodes are removed. Her health and state of mind were primary considerations, but part of her reasoning also had been recovery time.

"If I had gone for the other, there would have been radiation, and I couldn't possibly carry on the schedule that I have with radiation. I mean -- there would have been no way," she said.

The next morning, Oct. 17, fog grounded the president's chopper, and he and Richard Davis had to ride to Bethesda by limousine. They saw Mrs. Reagan briefly in a hallway, and not again until they joined her in the recovery room. Groggy but vocal, she implored them: "Please don't let Bob Woodward in my hospital room."

Woodward's book tells of a hospital bedside interview with the late CIA director William Casey. Casey and his wife Sophia were personal friends of the Reagans, and the first lady had told an interviewer a few weeks earlier that she found it "distasteful" and "ghoulish" that Woodward tried to interview Casey as he lay dying from brain cancer.

Reagan had a quip ready. "Honey, I know you don't feel like dancing, so let's just hold hands," he comforted.

Others have told what came next.

"I don't remember this -- but I evidently did keep saying to him 'I'm so sorry. I'm so sorry for you.' And he kept saying to me, 'It doesn't make any difference. It doesn't make any difference.' "

Was she apologizing for being a burden to him, or taking up his time? "No," she said, "this is something else.

"This is not a pleasant operation, certainly, and I guess it was on my mind that" -- she groped for a way to put it -- "about him."

The logs in the library fireplace were crackling. The decision to have her breast removed, adjusting to the disfigurement, all of it was behind her now.

"Maybe if I were another age, lived another kind of life, had another kind of husband and" -- here she paused, searching for a way to explain why she chose the treatment she did. But there wasn't any way.

"I've read various things of 'I made the wrong choice,' and so on and so forth, but if you're given -- if the doctor gives you the choices, then it's a very personal decision for everybody to make. For anybody to make.

"All I was concerned with afterwards was that everybody go have a mammogram. You know, that's all. Whatever they do after that, I'm not pushing one thing or the other. For me, I felt that what I did was right. But it might not be right for somebody else."'Edie's With Loyal'

She kicked up her heels when she got home five days later, on Oct. 22. "I do that a lot," she said, giggling.

Reagan led her away from the carnival-like welcome engineered by the White House staff to begin a recuperation they both expected to last a minimum of three weeks. But the death four days later of Edie Davis, who had been in poor health for several years, changed that. As Mrs. Reagan told it:

"It was late in the afternoon and I was lying on the bed. It was about 4 p.m., I think. And Ron called. And just then, the door opened and Ronnie walked in. I thought, 'What in the world is he doing here at 4 o'clock in the afternoon?' And I looked at his face and I knew something was wrong. But I didn't know what it was. And I said to Ron, 'Hold on a minute. Daddy just came in and something's wrong.' And he came up and sat down on the bed beside me. And I kept saying, 'What is it? What's wrong? What is it?'

"And this man's face was just really so agonized. And it was -- obviously, he didn't know how to tell me. And he finally said, 'Edie's with Loyal.' Well -- and Ron is hanging there on the phone hearing me saying, 'Oh, no, no, no, no, no. Let me go to her. Please, let me go to her.' And not knowing what's happening.

"But poor Ronnie."

Already vulnerable physically, she went to pieces.

"I thought if somebody was testing me up there, that maybe it was time to stop," she said.

The next morning Reagan took her to Phoenix. Aboard Air Force One, a tersely worded White House announcement informed reporters that Ron, Maureen and Michael Reagan would be at the funeral but that Patti Davis would be "traveling with her husband." Patti's most recent split with her parents, reportedly rooted in her autobiographical 1986 novel "Home Front," had come out in the open.

In Phoenix, she sorted and packed, reminisced and cried throughout the week. "No one will ever know the debt I owed my mother, no one will ever know what my mother meant to me," she told Nancy Reynolds.

She came across little things that took on new significance: the little red wool gloves Edith Davis wore, regardless of the Arizona temperature; a tiny gold ring engraved with the letters "E-N."

"I can only assume -- because it has her E and then mine, N, that she must have had it made after I was born, because obviously it is not a baby ring or else I couldn't have gotten it on my finger," she said. "So she must have worn it after I was born, but I never knew."

She was joined by son Ron. They sifted through mementos and took walks together around the hotel grounds, though she never could locate for him the honeymoon cottage she and his father had occupied.

"I don't know what I would have done without him," she said.

Her stepchildren Maureen and Michael Reagan, whose relationships with her in the past have not always been smooth, closed ranks for a show of family solidarity.

But Patti, her firstborn and rebellious since childhood, was not with them. "Another crack in an already broken heart," Crispen said of Patti's failure to join the family for her grandmother's funeral.

Others said Patti's behavior was characteristic of her. "As a little girl she has always been different from the rest," said Betsy Bloomingdale. "She didn't want her father to be governor. And she didn't want him to be president."

Whether such assessments were fair to her daughter wasn't of concern to Nancy Reagan when she talked in the White House. "I am more concerned about what is fair to my mother," she said.

Asked if it was hard for her to understand her daughter's seeming indifference, not only to her grandmother's death but generally to witnessing and even being a part of history in the making, she said, "That's a problem that someday she'll have to face. I don't -- Ron more than makes up for that, you know."

Close as Patti and her grandmother once had been (as a schoolgirl in Arizona, Patti often visited the Davises, whose name she later took; five years ago, she attended Loyal Davis' funeral), Nancy Reagan said she sees none of Edith Davis in her daughter.

"No, no, no, no," she protested at the suggestion. "Mother was the most considerate of people and the kindest of people ... It wasn't just surface -- you know, 'How is your little boy?' Pat on the head. Not that at all. No, there was nothing selfish or self-centered or anything about my mother."Life in the Fishbowl

She has learned to joke about her alleged behind-the-scenes work running things at the White House, a role she denies.

"Oh, of course I am. Yes. Yes," she said to the suggestion that she was involved in preparation for next week's arms talks. "I just broke away from a meeting to come over here and see you." She even joined in kidding about the treaty having room for her and Raisa Gorbachev to sign along with their husbands.

But there are things she doesn't joke about. "I'd like to see {Supreme Court nominee Anthony} Kennedy {confirmed} -- get that done," she said. "I'd like to see the budget deficit talks come to a conclusion. And let Ronnie go ahead with things that he wants to do under a more peaceful atmosphere."

Her mother's little gold ring glistened on her finger and from time to time she touched it. She thought a bit about the fishbowl in which she has lived for the past seven years. That's one thing she won't miss when she leaves.

"No, no, I won't. No, I won't," she said. "I'll enjoy a little more privacy. I'll enjoy not being under that microscope all the time. That gets a little wearing."

And meanwhile, how will she keep her perspective?

"You just do," she said. "I mean, maybe I got that from mother. I hope I got something from mother. If you have a job to do, you have to do it.