The night before my father died, Ronald Reagan, I listened to his breathing — ragged, thin. Nothing like that of the athletic man who rode horses, built fences at the ranch, constructed jumps from old phone poles, cut back shrubs along riding trails. Or of the man who lifted his voice to the overcast sky and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”
Time and history folded over themselves inside me, distant memories somersaulting with more recent realities — the 10 years of his journey into the murky world of Alzheimer’s and my determination to abandon the well-worn trail of childhood complaints and forge a new path. To be blunt, I had resolved to grow the hell up.
I can still remember how it felt to be his child, though, and how the attention he paid to America and its issues made me jealous.
Long before my father ran for office, politics sat between us at the dinner table. The conversations were predictable: Big government was the problem, the demon, the thing America had to be wary of. I hated those conversations. I wanted to talk about the boy who bullied me on the school bus, not government overreach.
In time I came to resent this country for claiming so much of him. Yet today, it’s his love for America that I miss most. His eyes often welled with tears when “America the Beautiful” was played, but it wasn’t just sentiment. He knew how fragile democracy is, how easily it can be destroyed. He used to tell me about how Germany slid into dictatorship, the biggest form of government of all.
I wish so deeply that I could ask him about the edge we are teetering on now, and how America might move out of its quagmire of anger, its explosions of hatred. How do we break the cycle of violence, both actual and verbal? How do we cross the muddy divides that separate us, overcome the partisan rancor that drives elected officials to heckle the president in his State of the Union address? When my father was shot, Tip O’Neill, then speaker of the House and always one of his most devoted political opponents, came into his hospital room and knelt down to pray with him, reciting the 23rd Psalm. Today a gesture like that seems impossible.
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