It surprised me, really. I knew I was interested to watch Mrs. Reagan’s funeral, to hear the words of speakers such as former Secretary of State James Baker, to remember her life with the rest of the nation. But I did not expect to weep through the whole thing as I did. So why did I?
The first reason is obvious: the correlation with Nancy Reagan’s death and the recent death of my own mother. They were born only a few months apart. Both of their lives were defined by their long, loving marriages to successful men they adored. Both of them were beautiful, cared about fashion and, like so many women of their generation, always had every hair in place. For both, their great life's work was supporting their husbands in every way they could.
The Reagans and my parents came of age at the same time—that Greatest Generation who grew up during the Depression, fought in World War II, and came home to raise their children with more advantages and ease than they had known. The constant stream of photos during Mrs. Reagan’s funeral brought back memories of growing up in Santa Barbara and seeing my mother in her long ball gown and my father in his tuxedo as they headed to some affair in Los Angeles. It was an elegant time, when we dressed up in our Sunday best to travel by air and Mother’s copy of Emily Post’s Etiquette was her second Bible.
Another obvious reason is that the service gave testimony to the long and faithful love between Ronald and Nancy Reagan. To hear about her caregiving of him during “the long good-bye” that is Alzheimer’s disease, about her deep loneliness without him, and again, with those photos! Who would not be touched?
But there was more to my tears. And I think it relates to what is happening in our nation today. The nation I am waking up in today is not the country I thought it was. I thought I was still in the nation that worked to overcome its wrongs—its racism, ignorance, cruelty—with the pursuit of a “kinder, gentler America.” I thought I still lived in a pluralistic nation where we could agree to disagree about what we think is right but will, through reasoned discourse and our constitutional system, respectfully try to persuade those who disagree to our way of thinking. But now it appears that de Tocqueville’s prophetic words may be coming to pass:
“I sought for the greatness and genius of America in her commodious harbors and her ample rivers – and it was not there . . . in her fertile fields and boundless forests and it was not there . . . in her rich mines and her vast world commerce – and it was not there . . . in her democratic Congress and her matchless Constitution – and it was not there. Not until I went into the churches of America and heard her pulpits aflame with righteousness did I understand the secret of her genius and power. America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”
― Alexis de Tocqueville,
― Alexis de Tocqueville,
Ronald Reagan believed the best about America and her people. An optimist, he believed that we want to do what is good, to go the right way. Those who described Nancy Reagan let us know that she saw more of man’s true nature than her husband did, and was always on guard because of it.
At her funeral, planned to the last detail by Mrs. Reagan, Diane Sawyer read these verses from the Gospel of John:
"Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way to where I am going." Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?" Jesus said to him, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”—John 14:1-6 (ESV)
The only hope we have is in those words. It is God who saves through Jesus Christ; God alone who can give new hearts, and faith, and goodness imputed and imparted. It is His common grace that keeps any kind of restraint on the evil that lurks within the human heart. This brought more tears as well, at the grace of God.
Additional tears came as those at the funeral prayed the Lord’s Prayer together but Ronald Reagan, Jr., sat with open eyes, not participating. I was so sad for him, fearing that he indeed might be one who grieves, as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 4:13, with “no hope.”
I cried for the Reagan children who are now, like me, “orphans.”
I cried because, as I’ve gotten older, I always cry when “God Bless America” and “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” and “Amazing Grace” are played.
I cried as I remembered the substance and civility of presidential debates gone by, such as the 1980 debates between Carter and Reagan.
I cried because it feels like we are living a national nightmare.
I cried and I begged God for mercy on our land. I cried, and yet, with hope.