The man with one minute to live is no longer confused.
Ronald Reagan lapsed into a coma two days ago. His wife, Nancy, sits at the side of the bed, holding the former president’s hand. Emotionally and physically exhausted by the ordeal, she quietly sobs as her body rocks in grief. Reagan’s breathing has become ragged and inconsistent. After ten long years of slow descent toward the grave due to Alzheimer’s disease, a bout of pneumonia brought on by food particles caught in his lungs has delivered the knockout blow. Nancy knows that her beloved Ronnie’s time has come.
Counting the former president, six people crowd into the bedroom. There is his physician, Dr. Terry Schaack; and Laura, the Irish nurse whose soft brogue the president is known to find soothing. Two of his grown children stand at the bedside. Ron, forty-six, and Patti, fifty-one, have been holding vigil with their mother for days. They have a reputation for conflict with their parents, but on this day those quarrels have vanished as they lend their mother emotional support. An adopted son from Reagan’s first marriage, Michael, has also been summoned, but he is caught in Los Angeles traffic and will miss the president’s final breath.
Outside the single-story, three-bedroom house, the foggy Pacific marine layer has burned off, replaced by a warm summer sun. The hydrangea and white camellia bushes are in full bloom. A media horde has gathered on St. Cloud Road in Reagan’s posh Bel-Air neighborhood,1 waiting with their cameras and news trucks for the inevitable moment when the fortieth president of the United States passes away. The former actor and college football player is ninety-three. Even into his seventies, he was so vigorous that he rode the hills of his Santa Barbara ranch on horseback for hours and cleared acres of thick hillside brush all by himself.
But years ago his mind betrayed him. Reagan slowly lapsed into a dementia so severe that it has been a decade since he appeared in public. The root cause could have been genetic, for his mother was not lucid in her final days. Or it might have been the result of a near-death experience caused by a gunman’s bullet twenty-three years ago. Whatever the reason, Reagan’s decline has been dramatic. Over the past ten years, he has spent most days sleeping or looking out at the sweeping view of Los Angeles from his flagstone veranda. His smile is warm, but his mind is vacant. Eventually, he lost the ability even to recognize family and friends. When Reagan’s oldest child from his first marriage, Maureen, was dying of melanoma in a Santa Monica hospital in 2001, the former president was in the same hospital being treated for a broken hip—yet was too confused to see her.
So now, the man who lies at home in a hospital bed, clad in comfortable pajamas, is a shell of his former self. His blue eyes, the last time he opened them, were dense, the color of chalk. His voice, which once lent itself to great oration, is silent.
Another breath, this one more jagged than the last. Nancy’s tears fall onto the bedsheets at the onset of the death rattle.
Suddenly, Ronald Reagan opens his eyes. He stares intently at Nancy. “They weren’t chalky or vague,” Patti Davis will later write of her father’s eyes. “They were clear and blue and full of love.”
The room hushes.
Closing his eyes, Reagan takes his final breath.
The former leader of the free world, the man who defeated Soviet communism and ended the Cold War, is dead.