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"I think your mommy's had a stroke." (Pat Nixon)


At the end of June 1976, David,who had just graduated from George Washington University Law School, and I arrived at San Clemente for a month's visit. On July 3 we attended a Bicentennial party organized in my parent's honor by some of the men and women who had supported them since 1946. The party in Newport Beach was their first formal public event together since China. My parents stayed late, greeting old friends and signing autographs, and they did not arrive home until 1 a.m.

Three days later, on July 7, mymother suffered a stroke. It had been a traumatic day. In the morning she had read part of The Final Days [Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward's book about the last months of the Nixon White House], which, despite my father's protests, she had finally borrowed from one of the secretaries in his office. Even as she read, uppermost in her mind was the news he had shared with her just before leaving for work at 8 a.m.: that the next day the big story would be his disbarment from the practice of law. Despite all my father's efforts in the previous months to have his resignation accepted, the New York State Bar had gone ahead with a full and expensive disbarment proceeding, presumably in the hope of humiliating the former president.

Since Manolo and Fina Sanchez,the housekeepers, were in Spain on a month's vacation, my mother had spent most of the afternoon housecleaning. Whe she sat down on a chaise longue on the patio around 4 p.m., the late-afternoon sun was warm and soothing to her face. But the rest of her body felt heavy and spent. She was so exhausted she did not think she could ever get up again. Shortly before 5 p.m., however, she forced herself up from the chaise and, stumbling slightly as she walked, managed to get to her room and change for a predinner swim with my father, David, and me. She spent most of the time on the steps in the shallow end, but since she occasionally did that, we noticed nothing out of the ordinary. During dinner, she said little and ate only a few bites of the meal I had prepared and then went to her bedroom.

She remembers she could hardlywalk. But she had no idea she was having a stroke, nor did any of us guess something was strong. When I went to her room an hour later to see if she wanted to watch the televised White House dinner in honor of Queen Elizabeth, she was lying on her bed, fully clothed, sound asleep. I thought it was odd, but the room was dark, and I assumed she had simply been extremely tired and would undress later.

In the middle of the night, motherwoke up and felt she should was her hair, for we were planning to have dinner with Charles and Connie Stuart, her former staff director, at a restaurant the next day. But she found she was so fatigued she could barely move. She managed to get her nightgown on and fell back into bed. In the morning, shortly before 7 a.m., mother went out to the kitchen to get my father's coffee ready. She had trouble with her left hand when she tried to open a new can of coffee, and when my father came in a few minutes later, he found her struggling with the top of his grapefruit-juice bottle.

He noticed immediately that theleft corner of her mouth was drooping and that her speech was slightly slurred. He guessed then she had had a stroke. Not wanting to frighten her, he said nothing. Quickly, he drank his juice and a few sips of coffee and then told mother he was going over to the office.

Instead, he rapidly walked throughthe inner courtyard and knocked on my bedroom door, calling, "Julie, Julie." His voice was so low that David did not awaken, but I could tell by the tone something was wrong. I opened the door, and he beconed for me to follow him down the corridor toward the front door. As we rapidly walked along, he said, "I think your mommy's had a stroke." It was 7:30 a.m.

He asked me to go into the kitchenand try to convince mother that the weakness she felt in her left side was not normal and that she should get into bed. By 8:10 he was able to reach Jack Lungren [chief of staff at Long Beach Memorial Hospital], describe the symptoms, and, at Lungren's request, call for a doctor from nearby Camp Pendleton. Despite mother's objections, the chief of medicine from Pendleton examined her at 10 and told her she had had a "tiny stroke." Then the doctor and I went outside into the courtyard for a private conversaation. He stated that mother would need to be hospitalized to determine how much damage she had suffered from the stroke and, more important, to observe her in the next, crucial 24 hours as the stroke ran its course. As we stood on the patio talking, the sun was already hot and brilliant. Next to us the sound of the soft splash of water from the fountain of Mexican tiles was soothing; birds and butterflies darted among hanging baskets and beds of flowers. It was beautiful and unreal. A few feet away, mother lay in a shuttered, dark room while David tried to talk lightheartedly to her about anything but illness.

Fifteen minutes later, after aconversation in his office with the doctor, my father ordered an ambulance and came over to the house to tell mother gently but firmly that they would be oing to the hospital. She protested, claiming she was just tired and all she needed was rest. But, despite the brave words, she was frightened. When the Camp Pendleton doctor took her blood pressure, it was markedly elevated--175 over 110.

Mother herself packed a smallsuitcase, and when the ambulance arrived for the trip to Long Beach Memorial Hospital, she climbed independently onto the stretcher table in the van. My father and I rode with her the 40 dreary miles of freeway that stretch between San Clemente and Long Beach, the same trip she had made so many times almost two years ago to visit him. The spires of taco and burger stands and the gas-station signs loomed above the stretches of tract housing. Mother kept her eyes closed throughout most of the trip. There was very little conversation. Each of us was wrapped in his own thoughts, including a Secret Service agent, Bill Hudson, who sat in the front seat next to the ambulance driver. Just as all of mother's friends would feel as soon as they heard the news, Bill was stunned by what had happened.

Tricia, with her little gray poodle,Pooh, under her arm, was in the air en route to California from BNew York within an hour and 15 minutes of hearing from my father that mother had had a stroke. When she landed in Los Angeles, she saw a large headline, "Pat Stricken." To see the words in print was a shock to her. It was just as well she had not heard the statement of mother's neurologist, Dr. John Mosier, who told the press that evening that Mrs. Nixon's stroke was only 35 to 50 percent completed. "I think she will walk," Mosier said. "She may not walk normally. If the stroke doesn't get any worse, she's not going to die. If it gets worse, well, people do die from strokes."

Mother was sitting up when Triciaentered the room. One of her eyes was open, the other shut. Slurring her words, she told her daughter, "Oh, Dolly, what a pretty dress." When Tricia bent to kiss her, mother apologized that she could not hug her in return because her left side was not functioning. Tricia blurted out, "I'm so sorry you had to have the spinal tap," referring to the culmination of three hours of tests she had just undergone. Mother, for once not belittling pain, answered Tricia, "Oh, honey, it really did hurt."

Tricia and I spent the night at thehouse of Jack and Helene Drown, old family friends, in order to be closer to the hospital. When Tricia remarked to Helene, "Mother doesn't seem depressed," Helene responded truthfully, "Of course she's depressed." She had seen the head nurse of intensive care, the vibrant, confident woman who had cared for my father 20 months before, go into mother's room, and she heard mother say, slurringly, "Connie, I'm beat. I'm through." But to my father, to Tricia, and to me, and even to Helene, she was magnificently brave.

At San Clemente that night,Diane Sawyer, who was part of a research team of three assisting my father with his Memoirs, stayed late to answer the telephones. On her list of callers, which included Bebe Rebozo, Ambassador Huang-Chen of the People's Republic of China Liaison Office, Dr. Henry Kissinger, and John B. Connally, there was the name Clark Wanger. Next to his name, Diane had recorded:

Just a private citizen. Spent entireevening trying to get a number to call, finally did at 2 a.m. EST. Sent a wire, too, but felt somehow that wasn't enough to express how he and his family feel. They are simply part of what RN used to call the silent majority. The people still out there who believe in him, still do. Wanted to wish speedy recovery. Wants nothing in return. . .said "this will mean nothing to RN, but I just want him to know that there are so many who are sorry, so many who love. . . ."

In the next week an average of6,000 messages and 50 bouquets of flowers arrived daily at the hospital. Despite the shock and all-encompassing fatigue of the stroke, mother checked each day to see if the flowers had been distributed to other patients and the hospital staff. Thousands more letters and telegrams were sent to San Clemente. In the end, more than a quarter of a million pieces of mail were received.

Those first weeks may father wasnumb. I doubt he was even aware--or he refused to recognize--the magnitude of what had happened. He concentrated on the mail, the telegrams, the flowers, the news reports, what mother needed at the hospital, and what Tricia and I were eating and whether we were getting enough sleep.

From the very first day he establisheda ritual for his daily morning visit with mother: he would come into her room very upbeat, kiss her on the cheek, and then say immediately, "Well, let me feel your grip." Mother, who could barely lift her hand from where it lay inert, a heavy weight by her body, each day gritted her teeth and tried determinedly to grasph his fingers, and each day she grew stronger.

Then he would sit in a chair by herbed and read some of the telegrams, letters, and editorials he had selected to bring with him that day. One of the wires he read was from New York City's Taxi Drivers Local Union No. 3036: "You can't keep a good woman down. Best wishes for a speedy and complete recovery. We all love you dearly. Please get well quickly." The Young Democrats of Rock Island County (Illinois) wired, "May the charm and grace your showed us as First Lady return very soon as we take this moment to offer our prayers and best wishes. Our best regards to President Nixon and your family as well."

Mother listend to the messages weread her, but most of them washed over her. Even after 15 minutes of visiting, we could tell she was exhausted. But when she was home and she had a chance to reread some of the letters and editorials, I am sure the outpouring of concern from so many she had never met strengthened her in her determination to get well.

It took character to fight backfrom the physical and emotional devastation of the stroke. Her therapy exercises were her own private battle. She wanted no sympathy and no witnesses to the struggle, not even Tricia and me, until she sensed how desperately we needed to see her progress. So she would do the "steeple" for us--the laborious process of joining the stricken fingers of her left hand with those of her right. At the end, her forehead would be dotted with perspiration. She told us later that another exercise, climbing the three steps in the therapy room, was "the hardest thing I have ever done, physically."

At her own request, she saw fewvisitors. Jack and Helene Drown came, as did their daughter Maureen. One morning mother asked me if Bill Hudson was on duty, and he stopped by the room for a few minutes. Her brother Tom Ryan came; Tom's visit, which Tricia and I had surprised mother with, was difficult for her because it meant so much. When he walked in, the first words that he spoke in his slow, soft voice were, "Hi, Babe." Throughout the short visit, he stood at the foot of the bed and from time to time reassuringly squeezed his sister's toes beneath the bed sheet. Neither said much, and mother's emotions were very close to the surface.

Through sheer grit, shemade rapid progress during her two-week hospitalization. She pushed herself. On July 13, only six days after the stroke, my father arranged an All-Star baseball game picnic in order to watch the American League battle the National League in their annual encounter. Diane Sawyer and Frank Gannon, the latter my father's chief assistant on his Memoirs, prepared a hollowed-out watermelon filled with my mother's favorite fruits to go with the fried chicken we brought from home. The television was set up in the therapy room, and mother, leaning heavily on my father, walked unsteadily and slowly the few feet from her room in order to join us. By the time she reached her chair, she was panting. But she sat there, fatigue on her face, her neck slack--and as proud as she could be that she had made it to the All-Star party.

Jack Drown, who had joined us forthe party, David, and my father were yelling uninhibitedly when Dr. Lungren came into the room on his evening rounds. He was not happy with the signt of his patient at the All-Star picnic, but he grinned as he said, "This is insanity. I can't believe this. When are you going to get back into bed?" Mother was all smiles.

After mother's release from thehospital, in some ways the months recuperating at home were harder than the two weeks at Long Beach. The stroke had been a blow, one that neither she nor any of us could quite believe. Only seven months before, at Christmastime, her blood pressure had been normal when it was taken during one of my father's daily checks. Since Bebe Rebozo, who had a history of high blood pressure, was visiting, my father had teasingly suggested a contest between him and mother, knowing that Bebe would lose. He did lose that morning, since mother's blood pressure had registered a normal 140 over 82.

Yet sometime during the succeedingmonths, her blood pressure skyrocketed. Few human beings could have withstood almost two years of harassment, culminating in the publication of The Final Days, which my father would publicly pinpoint as the precipitator of the stroke. Mother's doctors, in response to reporters' questions about the possible causes of the stroke, had stated stress could well have been a contributing factor. Too, there was much truth in what David told an interviewer in 1973: "I. . .worry about her because she never lets any of us know what troubles her. She is a shoulder to everyone--but whose shoulder does she lean on?"
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Author:Eisenhower, Julie Nixon
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Article Type:Biography
Date:Apr 1, 1987
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