I couldn’t stop the tears as I drove along the Parkway West, heading to my boyfriend’s apartment. Jim would be asleep after working the midnight to eight shift, but I didn’t want to be alone. Rather than driving east to my apartment in Squirrel Hill, I found myself heading south to Mt. Lebanon.
All the radio stations were covering the same story. Who wanted to listen to music anyway? Our president may be dying. At the time the news hit the downtown office where I worked, all we knew was that someone tried to assassinate President Reagan. We didn’t know his condition or his prognosis as we were all sent home.
I wept as I drove, the tears blurring my vision. Then the newscaster announced the death of press secretary, James Brady.
“No,” I shouted. “No … no … no …” I repeated, pounding on the steering wheel, fearing for the worst for the president. After all, one official was already dead from the spray of bullets aimed at him. I listened for more news -- scared, angry, and confused.
Transported back to life with my father, somehow, I internalized the fear and made it personal. After all, President Reagan reminded me so much of him. And so much of my life with my father was ensconced in the eerie whine of ambulances and the unnerving beeps of hospital machinery. It was March 1981, when John Hinckley made an assassination attempt on the President of the United States. My father had suffered thirteen heart attacks by then, but was still alive. Maybe President Reagan will pull through this, too, I thought.
After arriving at Jim’s apartment and waking him up, I collapsed into his arms, sobbing. We turned on the TV and waited for news …
Of course, President Reagan survived the attack, and so did, as it turns out, James Brady. In his case, he truly could quote Mark Twain’s line, “The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
It was a scary day in America. But beyond all my memories of grief, my memory of Ronald Reagan’s attitude sticks with me most.
“Honey, I forgot to duck,” he said to his beloved wife, Nancy, as they wheeled him into the O.R. His humor and refusal to succumb to self-pity was remarkable to me, given the circumstances. Later, news of his kidding around with the team in the operating room further embedded my affection for him. Taking off his oxygen mask, he quipped, “I hope you’re all Republicans.”
His surgeon, Dr. Joseph Giodano replied, “Today, Mr. President, we are all Republicans.”
While John Hinckley set out to impress actress, Jodie Foster, by killing the president, he in turn did something else, altogether. For a few days, possibly weeks, he united our country, tearing down the political walls that separate us. Oh, how I long for some more of that, minus the tragedies that tend to bind us, for brief moments, throughout our history. How can we possibly wish for peace with the world, when we, ourselves, cannot find peace within our borders?