MY FATHER, RONALD REAGAN
This is one of the stories that I used to ask my father to tell again and again: He was a young actor, filming a movie in England. He always began the story with a funny anecdote about trying to find something to eat in London that wasn’t boiled. “They boiled everything,” he’d say. I imagined him staring at a plate with boiled meat, boiled potatoes, vegetables boiled into mush, and then politely eating it. But the second half of the story is what I really craved. He said that one night he was awakened abruptly from a sound sleep. Not knowing what had awakened him, he sat straight up in bed. He then felt the ghostly grip of hands on his shoulders, and a sweeping feeling of profound protection and love. “Whatever was holding me,” he’d say, “was there to keep me safe.”
“Didn’t you try to turn around and see who it was?” I asked him.
“No. I didn’t need to. I knew all I needed to know — that I was protected and loved.”
When I was a child, I used to pray to God that I would have an experience like that. As an adult, I pray that I will recognize it if or when it happens and treat it as reverentially as he did. I learned about God from my father. I learned about the ocean, and horses, and all the creatures of this earth who each, he would tell me, have their purpose here. “Even ants?” I’d ask him. Yes, even ants.
My father believed in preparing his children for emergencies and unpredictable life events. He told me that if there were ever a fire in our house, and the flames were in my bedroom, to pull out a dresser drawer, hold it so the flat bottom was in front of me, and break out the window. That way the break would be clean, not jagged, and I could escape without getting cut on the glass. He told me if a stranger ever grabbed my arm, I should twist my arm in the direction of his thumb, forcing it back, which would be painful enough he’d loosen his grip. He taught me to get back on a horse after I’d fallen off, and to never let the horse know I was scared. Animals can always sense fear, he said, and then they get frightened.
But my father couldn’t have prepared me for the state of our country right now. He couldn’t have foreseen an America where, once again, racial divides are ragged and bloody. He couldn’t have imagined a presidential campaign in which personal insults and nastiness are the common currency, and in which one of the candidates says nauseatingly vile things about women. He would be appalled at the comparisons that candidate makes to him — Ronald Reagan, a man who wouldn’t even say “damn” in mixed company. Because he loved America so deeply, he would weep over the cruelty we routinely show one another these days, the cruelty that has become mainstream.
There are people who think they know my father just because they memorized him in the glare of the world’s brightest spotlight. There are people who believe they know my family because we played out our differences, our arguments, our estrangements, under that same spotlight. Other families squabble at the dinner table. For us, the world stage was our dinner table. There are people who think they know what motivated him, what inspired his ideas and fed his soul.
But the world doesn’t know the man who lovingly filmed his baby daughter crawling around the floor in diapers, who recorded his son on the swing set, his children in the pool, on horseback, running across white sand beaches to the blue Pacific. The world didn’t see the hurt in my father’s eyes when I so brazenly and publicly rebelled against him, and — many years later — how his eyes softened with the acceptance of my apology when I told him how deep the river of my regrets ran. The world didn’t see how his eyes reached and drifted, then finally surrendered as Alzheimer’s claimed him in its slow and steady conquest.
When I think of my father, I see him healthy and strong, riding ahead of me on horseback, his shoulders wide and confident, his hand stroking his horse’s neck. I see him bodysurfing, slipping down the front of a wave grinning at the thrill of the ride. I see his hands — one thumb had a scar on it from a childhood accident when his brother got careless with a sharp tool. I still think of the hands he felt on his shoulders and the feeling of protection that swept over him. I think of the man I knew — my father — and how he would probably smile and shrug at people using his name to further their own agendas. He had an innate graciousness. I think of this quote of his, which is on his gravesite: “I know in my heart that Man is good. That what is right will always eventually triumph. And there’s purpose and worth to each and every life.” I may never be lucky enough to feel a presence behind me, embracing me and keeping me safe. But I had a father who believed every life has a purpose, and I carry that in my heart.