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Reagan daughter shares her story

She was the Reagan rebel who became the prodigal daughter. For Patti Davis, cherished childhood memories have been a constant comfort, in the five months since President's Reagan's passing.
/ Source: Dateline NBC

She was the Reagan rebel who became the prodigal daughter. For Patti Davis, cherished childhood memories have been a constant comfort, in the five months since President's Reagan's passing.

Patti Davis: “The memories that I have are mostly at our old ranch, out in Agoura.  We used to go out there every Saturday. I can smell the oak trees. I can see it so clearly.”

Only recently has Patti Davis come to terms with what the camera didn't capture -- nearly 20 years of family feuding that left her resolutely estranged from her parents. She grew up the oldest of Ron and Nancy Reagan's two children. In the 70s, while he was the conservative governor of California, she was a liberal college drop-out. And like most members of her generation, she railed against her parents. 

In the 80s, while America was caught up in the Reagan revolution, Patti was waging a civil war of her own. Her strident opposition to her father's policies was a press secretary's worst nightmare. And after he left office, a blistering autobiography in 1992, describing her father as "distant" and her mother as "abusive," was outdone by a nude layout in "Playboy."  

In those years, she rarely saw her mom and dad. But time and disease had conspired to bring this splintered family back together. Ten years ago, when President Reagan revealed he had Alzheimer's disease, Patti Davis' work to make her peace with her parents and with herself had only just begun. 

Katie Couric: “Were you told what to expect in terms of how this disease would progress?”

Davis: “Not really. I shied away from researching too much of that because it seemed to me that you couldn’t give a blueprint for a disease like Alzheimer's. I felt that the best I could do for my father, and the best I could do for myself, and my mother and my family was to stay open to the experience, and learn whatever I could at every step of the way as it was going on.”

One of the ways she did just that was by keeping a journal monthly, sometimes daily, accounts of her family's ordeal from the time of her father's diagnosis to the time of his death.  The result is a book she calls "The Long Goodbye."  

Couric: “Why did you decide to record your thoughts? Did you find it therapeutic?”

Davis: “I really just sat down to write. I mean, I did what most writers do when something happens that's overwhelming, fascinating, moving, all of that. I didn't know what else to do about it except write about it.“

In her book, Patti is candid and remorseful about her days as the first family's wildest child. And she recalls a heart wrenching moment in 1995, a year after her father's diagnosis, when her mother was cleaning out his desk. 

Book audio: "In one of my father's drawers, she found a letter to me, a rough draft, which he never sent.  It was written just before my autobiography was published and he was expressing his hurt at my anger… “

Couric: “His closing line was, ‘please Patti, don't take away our memories of a daughter we truly love and whom we miss.’ And, yet, he never sent you that letter.”

Davis: “I know. And he had crossed out -- he'd kept it for over a year, and worked from, you know, rewritten, or whatever, for over a year. Because he crossed out his age, and increased his age by a year.  Yeah.”

Couric: “How did it make you feel, that letter?”

Davis: “Terrible. Twenty, 25 years later, when you look back, you're looking back at it through a filter that you didn't have then, you know. You're looking at it as a person who you weren't then.”

As Patti was learning about herself, she was noticing changes in her father as well. Even as Alzheimer's was slowly robbing Ronald Reagan of his short term memory, Patti marveled at his ability to recite prayers and poems he'd known since childhood.

Couric: ”As he became increasingly ill, I know that having a conversation was awkward.”

Davis: “Uh-huh.”

Couric: ”But there was one subject that brought you all together, that made conversation easier.  And that was skating?”

Davis: “Ice skating. Yeah.”

Couric: “You were just learning to ice skate?”

Davis: “Yeah. I loved it. And it made me feel closer to him. And especially when I heard his stories about ice skating as a kid along this river, that went on for miles, and miles and miles, and in winter when the river had frozen, they'd come back from school.  And they'd get their ice skates. And they'd just skate down the river until dinner time. I mean, it was this America that we don't have anymore. You know? And he remembered that. And the memories stayed with him for so long, and stayed vivid. And it didn't matter to me that he'd already repeated that before. I could hear it forever.”

But eventually, the disease claimed the great communicator's greatest gift.

Davis: “My father started growing very quiet as Alzheimer's started claiming more of him. The early stages of Alzheimer's are the hardest because that person is aware that they're losing awareness. And I think that that's why my father started growing more and more quiet. I think he felt, ‘I don't want to say something wrong.’ That's my sense of it.

Couric: “He was such an optimist. Did he get depressed about what was happening?”

Davis: “I don't think so.”

Couric: “Really?”

Davis: “I don't-- I mean, if he did, I don't think anybody saw it.”

As the disease was stealing her father away, Patti was growing closer and closer to her mother.  

Couric: “Ultimately, when your mom really needed you, you were there for both of them. And so that, in some ways, must make you feel so much better.  Because can you imagine if you had remained estranged from them? I got to know your mom through the years, when I did interview her, and she was so tickled when you would come over with zucchini bread. That was really so sweet. And I think you've provided her with so much joy and comfort in a time when there was so little to be had of both of those things.”

Davis: “Yeah, I hope so. I mean I think maybe whatever very gone through in your life, or… if you're happy with where you get to, then it's all -- it's worth it.”

For the last three years of his life, Patti says her father was bedridden and required 'round the clock medical care.  He was so ill, he was unable to recognize his eldest daughter Maureen, even as she was dying herself of cancer. He was almost always silent, even on a day, Patti believes, the world was desperate for his voice.

Couric: “You write, ‘I missed him more after September 11 than I had in all the years prior to that day. And I have never considered that I could miss him more. But I did. I missed him as a daughter. And I missed him as an American.’”

Davis: “Yes, I did. And I also-- and I really was so aware that I needed him as a citizen of this country and that we as a country needed him. Because he would have known what to say to bring us some comfort. I think I'm probably like most people; I had never had such reverence for being an American as I did after that day. I never thought that I would cry hearing America the Beautiful. I never thought that the sight of the American flag would make me weep. It used to make my father tear up. And after September 11, I found that happening to me. And I got to understand a little bit of his deep love for this country.”

Couric: “Your dad's last morning was something out of a movie in a way appropriately. Tell me what happened.”

Davis: “Several minutes before he took his last breath he opened his eyes and looked straight at my mother and held her eyes. And his eyes were focused. And they were blue. And they hadn't been blue like that in at least a year. I mean, it was this moment of just utter clarity looking straight at her.  And he closed his eyes. And he took his last breath.”

And ironically, the nation Patti Davis shook her fist at in the 70s and resented in the 80s became a companion, sharing her journey, sharing her grief.

Davis: “I had this odd sibling rivalry with America. America had taken my father from me. And over most of the years of his illness, I gradually started feeling this support system from this country who -- people grieving along with us. But even after that week ended, I got and I know everybody in my family did, hundreds and hundreds of postcards and cards and letters. I would say 90 percent of them said, ‘Thank you for sharing your father with us.’ And I thought, wow, you know, if you hang around this earth long enough you really see how things come full circle."

In many ways, the process of living life without her father began long before his death. But at 52, Patti says she's still learning from him lessons about life, love and most importantly, faith. 

Book audio: There is a hill in Pacific Palisades California. It was our kite-flying hill. My father would tell this story: I stood on my tiptoes, stretched my arm up toward all that blue and asked him, ‘if I reached up really high, can I touch God?’ He answered, ‘You don't have to reach up. God is everywhere all the time, all around us.’”

Davis: “I think that nothing teaches you more about, life than death and dying. You know? If you can really show up for that situation with a loved one, you learn a lot about how to live your life knowing that there are no guarantees that you'll even be here tomorrow. And you live your life a little bit more gently, a little bit more softly. Hopefully, a little bit more wisely, dare I say.”