From Chicken Soup for the Father & Daughter Soul

Tearing Down the Wall

He that cannot forgive others breaks the bridge over which he himself must pass if he would ever reach heaven; for every one has need to be forgiven.

George Herbert

There was a moment, a day, when I first discovered that my father was famous. I was about five years old, and my parents had taken me to Disneyland. We were waiting to get on the Teacup ride when dozens of people realized that Ronald Reagan, the host of General Electric Theater, was there. We were suddenly surrounded by eager, smiling faces and arms begging for my father’s autograph.

I remember looking up at my handsome father and feeling frightened that he was being taken from me, claimed by strangers, swallowed by the crowd.

Daughters lean toward their fathers in ways that they never do with mothers: tenderly, with unrequited longing. If that father is famous, the longing for him cuts deeper until it is a river running through your life, drowning every other relationship.

I was fourteen when my father was elected governor of California; I knew there would be no turning back. Politics is a demanding mistress and for eight years, California was my father’s other child. I was consumed with sibling rivalry; I was angry, petulant. I wanted more of him, his time, his attention. I lashed out bitterly, tearfully, hurting him with my defiance, all the while loving him desperately. My real fury was at the life of public service I believed had taken him from me.

When he was elected president in 1981, America was now the favored child, or so I believed. During his two terms in office, I felt that when I reached for him, all I could grasp was his shadow.

I got my revenge with other men. I frequently chose ones whose lives had no opening for me, oftentimes, married men. Or I would set my sights on men who had no ambition, no future. Either way, they were stand-ins for the man who once taught me to ride a horse and swim in the ocean, who climbed hills with me on windy days to fly a kite and who could find Pegasus in a sky full of stars. I used other men to act out my rage, but the two who really suffered were my father and me.

The problem was that I hadn’t separated the private man from the public figure. I had been looking at my father’s chosen profession and goals as a type of larceny; they were stealing him from me. It took me many years to understand that the shadow people cast in the world is a part of them.

All the while I thought my father had abandoned me. The truth was that I had abandoned him.

I returned as he was starting to leave, pulled away not by his duty or his country, but by a disease. I have returned with a reverence for the life he lived: for the persistence of his dreams and the unfailing faith that let him burn past his history as a poor kid from a dusty Midwest town, past those who scoffed about an actor becoming president, past those who said his passion was just pretense. He proved them all wrong, and his absence left a hole in the world now that he is gone.

History will immortalize Ronald Reagan as the president who helped end the Cold War, who stood in front of the Berlin Wall and said, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.” As his daughter, I immortalize him in the quiet passages of my heart. By instructing me in the rhythms of nature, my father taught me about life. By waiting for me, the prodigal child, to come back, he taught me patience. I live my life differently for having known him. As dramatically as the Berlin Wall came down, the walls between us crumbled and I stood on open ground, wondering why I had ever put up walls at all.

After the anger, after the ranting and acting out, we finally grow up and we realize it’s a gift to be born to someone who dreams big and reaches far. It inspires us to do the same, because their blood runs through us, and the lessons they pass on to us are powerful.

Patti Davis

More stories from our partners