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At the Ronald Reagan home on a hill overlooking Los Angeles, the Christmas decorations will soon be going up. As usual there will be a tree that his wife, Nancy, will half-smother with ornaments, including little white porcelain angels each inscribed with the name of a member of the family. As she has done for nearly a half-century, Nancy will unpack foil-and-paper Christmas trees that the couple's children Patti Davis, 51, and Ron Jr., 45, made when they were in grade school. "Mrs. Reagan goes out of her way to give the President the traditional Christmas they've always had," says Fred Ryan, a former assistant to the President. "She wants him to share in the joy of the season."

Sadly, Ronald Reagan will likely understand little of what's going on around him. At 92, the former President is in the last stages of Alzheimer's, the devastating disease from which he has suffered for nearly a decade. The once-robust leader of the free world can no longer speak, feed himself or even recognize his wife. Confined to a hospital bed, or occasionally placed in a wheelchair, he spends his days in a small room, where—on orders from a wife ferociously intent on guarding his dignity—even his closest friends have been forbidden to visit. It has been several years since an outsider has been allowed to see him. According to his oldest son, Michael, 58, who remembers the days when actor James Cagney would stop by the house at precisely 4 p.m. every Christmas Day, "We haven't been getting together [during the holidays] as a family lately, only because of Dad. He doesn't know it's Christmas."

For Ronald Reagan each day is the same. "He's in the throes of continual neurological degradation," explains his former White House doctor John Hutton. "Occasionally he is put in a wheelchair and moved out where he can view the city, but there is a vacantness there. You can't really tell if he appreciates it." If it weren't for his remarkably rugged constitution, says Hutton, Reagan would probably be gone already.

While the former President's condition may come as a shock to admirers, for his wife, Nancy, it has become the focus of her life. According to friends, in recent years she has only rarely left her husband's side, especially since Ronald underwent hip surgery in 2001. With the help of doctors, nurses and a full-time housekeeping staff, Nancy, 82, spends nearly every day overseeing her husband's care—part of an increasingly lonely vigil that she calls "the long goodbye." "Nancy is no different from so many people who are impacted by this disease," says Dennis Revell, husband of the late Maureen Reagan, Ronald's daughter with his first wife, Jane Wyman. (Maureen died of melanoma in 2001.) "She may be in one part of the house at one moment, but she never leaves his side in reality."

Her efforts have come at a cost. Nancy had cataract surgery earlier this year, and the former First Lady's health is said to be more fragile, the emotional toll on her life increasingly visible. "When the chips are down, she shows the kind of strength and grace we could all only hope to have," says former aide Sheila Tate. "But this has been nine years now. She lives with it every day. She doesn't complain, but she's sad. You can hear it in her voice." Adds Michael Deaver, a White House deputy chief of staff and another close friend who had worked with her husband since his days as California governor: "She had a great laugh. You don't hear it much now."

Indeed, for Nancy, who flatly refuses to discuss the details of her husband's condition, the couple's three-bedroom house behind high gates in the hillside enclave of Bel Air has become something of a fortress, guarded by a Secret Service detail that has been in place since the Reagans returned to California from Washington in 1989. Aside from lunching with a tight circle of friends at the Hotel Bel-Air, where she invariably dines on Cobb salad and chocolate-chip cookies, Mrs. Reagan limits her outside appearances to events related to her husband's legacy, such as a Nov. 14 party marking the renovation of galleries at the Reagan presidential library in Simi Valley, Calif. (She took no questions from reporters.) In any case the respite is brief. "You can imagine how hard it is for her to make conversation at lunch or dinner, knowing what awaits her at home," says pal Pat Buckley, wife of conservative pundit William F. Buckley Jr. As for Nancy's famous taste for society outings and lavish entertaining, says etiquette writer and Washington friend Letitia Baldrige, "she loved clothes and fashion, but you have to have somewhere to wear them to. Now that's gone."

Yet friends of the couple take comfort in the fact that Ronald's illness has to a certain degree reunited their once-fractured family. Daughter Patti Davis, who wrote a bitter and thinly disguised fictional account of her family before reconciling with her mother two years ago, is now a regular visitor to the house (see box page 122). A key turning point, many have said, was the death of Maureen, who had helped with the President's care. "Fortunately, Nancy had Patti, who saw the void," says Revell.

Similarly, Ronald Reagan Jr., now a Seattle TV journalist, has grown much closer to his mother (see box page 124), and Michael Reagan describes how he, too, made his peace. "I decided in 1991 to tell my dad for the first time that I loved him," he told PEOPLE. "He actually said back to me, 'I love you too.' " Michael then made a habit of hugging his father each time he saw him. As Ronald's mind faded, he eventually seemed to forget who Michael was but seemed to recognize him as the man who hugged him.

"One day," continues Michael, "my wife and I were leaving the house, and she looked at me and said, 'Michael, you've forgotten something. I turned around and there was my dad standing in the door with his arms wide open. I had forgotten to hug him goodbye."

After CBS announced in June that it would air The Reagans, a controversial and unflattering TV movie about the First Couple, friends rallied to Nancy's side. "She said to me, 'I really don't need this,' " says former White House aide Deaver, who insists that Nancy played no direct role in pressuring CBS executives to drop the program. Patti Davis says her mother did indeed write to the network to complain. (CBS eventually moved the movie to their sister network, Showtime, where it aired on Nov. 30.) In any case, Merv Griffin says his friend was overwhelmed by public support, especially when she was stopped by well-wishers during a shopping trip in Beverly Hills. "She had lost sight of how loved Ronnie was," says Griffin.

Mrs. Reagan has also quietly wielded her influence to push for federal funding of embryonic stem-cell research, which doctors say may provide an Alzheimer's cure, even though she knows it will come too late to help the former President. The cause has put her at odds with many pro-life conservatives who were among her husband's staunchest supporters. "It's not the same issue as abortion," she told Vogue last year. "This is about giving life." In 2001 she wrote a personal plea to President George W. Bush, who largely opposes the research and has lobbied both Republican and Democratic lawmakers. "She doesn't arm-twist," says Kenneth Duberstein, President Reagan's former chief of staff. "But when stem-cell research comes up, people think of Nancy Reagan. That's a huge positive."

To those who know her best, such determination is simply another sign of the devotion she still feels for a man who swept her off her feet when she was a young actress more than 50 years ago. "Nancy's whole life has been Ronnie," says veteran Hollywood producer A.C. Lyles, who has known Ronald Reagan since the '30s. "There is only one word for how she's been able to cope: love. Her love for him is eternal."

By J.D. Heyman. Champ Clark, Michael Fleeman and Frank Swertlow in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Sharon Cotliar in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Michael Fleeman,
  • Frank Swertlow,
  • Macon Morehouse,
  • Sharon Cotliar,
  • Patti Davis.