It’s the most powerful word in the English language. When it is flanked by two pronouns, it becomes the most powerful sentence in the English language: “I love you.” Those three words change hearts. They change lives. They change everything.
It doesn’t matter what part of the world you live in or what language you speak — there are the equivalents of those three words. And they carry with them the same power everywhere they’re uttered, for the person saying them, and the person hearing them.
This is true for all of us, no matter how rich or how poor. No matter how famous or ordinary. Without love, we are lost. With it, anything is possible.
Sometimes, we see a marriage and we know it’s true. We know it’s good. And it inspires us to one day find a good and true marriage of our own.
When a marriage ends, it breaks our hearts. When they endure, when they overcome life’s vicissitudes, those marriages inspire us. Those marriages teach us about life. About love.
President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan inspired many of us to be courageous conservatives. But as lovers, Ronnie and Nancy did something more important: They inspired us to be better husbands and wives.
We sensed it watching them together. Always, they seemed to want to get away. Get away and get out of their fancy clothes, and get back to the ranch they enjoyed so much to do the simple things in life together. A horseback ride. A walk. A movie.
That’s the sign of a great marriage. Always, it seemed, they were alone together. In a crowd. Or at home.
When Nancy met Ronnie, she was instantly taken with him. “He wasn’t like any other actor I knew, or anybody else in the movie business,” she described in the book “I Love You, Ronnie.” “He didn’t talk about himself. He didn’t talk about his movies.”
Nancy wasn’t finished. “He was a Civil War buff, loved horses, and knew a lot about wine. In fact, he had a broad knowledge of a lot of different things,” she continued. “I loved to listen to him talk. I loved his sense of humor. I saw it clearly that very first night: He was everything that I wanted.”
Ronnie felt the very same way about her.
Ronnie and Nancy started out slowly, because Ronnie had been married before. He had two children from his first marriage, and back in the early 1950s, divorce, even among actors, was not conventional.
Their romance grew. And then came the most important day in the life of one of the most important leaders of the 20th century: On March 4, 1952, Ronnie and Nancy exchanged their wedding vows.
Like anyone who says those vows, that day is the day that changes your life forever. For better and for worse. We learned just how much for the better those vows changed Ronnie and Nancy’s lives when Nancy published the love letters of her husband in “I Love You, Ronnie.”
“I suppose some people would find it unusual that you and I can so easily span three thousand miles but in truth it comes very naturally,” Ronnie once wrote his bride. “Man can’t live without a heart and you are my heart, by far the nicest thing about me and so very necessary. There would be no life without you nor would I want any,” he wrote.
“I suppose some people would find it unusual that you and I can so easily span three thousand miles but in truth it comes very naturally,” Ronnie once wrote his bride.
Anyone blessed enough to be in that kind of marriage knows just how important it is to read words like those. To hear those words. It is as important as writing and saying them.
We learned in those letters that it was a marriage of equals. Ronnie confessed to being lost before he met her. Not the usual confession of a man in the 1950s, let alone today. But with love comes vulnerability. With love comes tenderness.
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On their eighth wedding anniversary, Ronnie wrote this to his love: “Thanks to you, I’m just eight years old today.”
Just a few years later, he wrote this: “I wonder how I lived at all for all the three hundred and sixty fives before I met you.”
A human being can’t ever be loved enough, those letters screamed at us. A lover can’t say or hear those three words — “I love you” — enough. A child can’t, either. Or a friend.
Ronnie’s letters to his bride showed great emotional range. Here’s a playful one, written by Ronnie on their 20th wedding anniversary in 1972.
My Darling Wife,
This note is to warn you of a diabolical plot entered into by some of our so called friends — (ha!) calendar makers and even our own children. These and others would have you believe we’ve been married 20 years.
20 minutes maybe — but never 20 years. In the first place it is a known fact that a human cannot sustain the high level of happiness I feel for more than a few minutes — and my happiness keeps on increasing.
I will confess to one puzzlement but I’m sure it is just some trick perpetrated by our friends — (Ha again!) I can’t remember ever being without you and I know I was born more than 20 mins ago.
Oh well — that isn’t important. The important thing is I don’t want to be without you for the next 20 years, or 40, or however many there are. I’ve gotten very used to being happy and I love you very much indeed.
Your husband of 20 something or other
Here’s a letter Ronnie wrote to his bride after a fight.
Dear Mrs. Reagan,
And you are Mrs. Reagan because Mr. Reagan loves you with all his heart. Every time Mr. Reagan sees the evening star or blows out the birthday candles or gets the big end of the wishbone he thinks the same wish — a prayer really — that so much happiness will go on and somehow be deserved by him. It is true sometimes that Mr. Reagan loses his temper and slams a door but that’s because he can’t cry or stamp his foot — (he isn’t really the type). But mad or glad Mr. Reagan is head over heels in love with Mrs. Reagan and can’t even imagine a world without her —
He loves her,
What a note. What an admission. Ronnie was teaching all of us how to deal with disagreements in a marriage. A letter like this from a lover can heal slights before they become wounds.
Ronnie wrote this for his beloved Nancy on Valentine’s day on February 14, 1977.
Dear St. Valentine,
I’m writing to you about a beautiful young lady who has been in this household for 25 years now — come March 4.
I have a request to make of you but before doing so feel you should know more about her. For one thing she has 2 hearts — her own and mine. I’m not complaining. I gave her mine willingingly, and like it right where it is. Her name is Nancy but for some time now I’ve called her Mommie and don’t believe I could change.
My request of you is — could you on this day whisper in her ear that someone loves her very much and more and more each day? Also tell her, this “Someone” would run down like a dollar clock without her so she must always stay where she is.
Then tell her if she wants to know who that “Someone” is to just turn her head to the left. I’ll be across the room waiting to see if you told her. If you’ll do this for me, I’ll be very happy knowing that she knows I love her with all my heart.
And then came the news in August of 1994. The kind of news no one ever wants to hear. Nancy’s love of her life announced to the world that he had Alzheimer’s Disease. Ronnie ended his short statement with these simple words:
I now begin the journey that will lead me into the sunset of my life. I know that for America there will always be a bright dawn ahead. Thank you, my friends. May God always bless you.
It would be anything but a bright dawn ahead for Nancy. The pitiless disease would slowly destroy the love of her life’s mental capacity. He was only able to recognize a few people as things turned bad.
Nancy told Larry King in a CNN interview in 2001 that few visitors were allowed to see her beloved husband. She made that decision to honor him. “Ronnie would want people to remember him as he was,” Nancy said, visibly holding back her tears.
Those of us who remember that interview could not. We cried. And cried hard.
On the afternoon of June 5, 2004, Nancy lost her lover. Days later at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California, none of us could hold back the tears as we watched Nancy, on her knees, lean in and kiss her husband’s casket.
“I love you, Ronnie,” she said with her lips. We could all see her say those words.
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She would live alone for over a decade, a broken heart that would never mend. A full and expectant heart waiting to join her love at the time of God’s choosing.
On March 6, 2016, Nancy Reagan’s spirit slipped the surly bonds of the Earth to join her husband for eternity.
At Nancy’s funeral service, former Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, a friend of the Reagan’s, read this letter from Ronnie to Nancy.
Dear Mrs. R,
I still don’t feel right about you opening an envelope instead of a gift package.
There are several much beloved women in my life and on Christmas, I should be giving them gold, precious stones, perfume, furs and lace. I know that even the best of these would still fall far short of expressing how much these several women mean to me and how empty my life would be without them.
There is of course my ‘First Lady.’ She brings so much grace and charm to whatever she does that even stuffy, formal functions sparkle and turn into fun times. Everything is done with class. All I have to do is wash up and show up.
There is another woman in my life who does things I don’t always get to see but I do hear about them and sometimes see photos of her doing them. She takes an abandoned child in her arms on a hospital visit. The look on her face only the Madonna could match. The look on the child’s face is one of adoration. I know because I adore her too.
She bends over a wheelchair or bed to touch an elderly invalid with tenderness and compassion just as she fills my life with warmth and love.
There is another gal I love who is a nest builder. If she was stuck three days in a hotel room she’d manage to make it home sweet home. She moves things around — looks at it — straightens this and that and you wonder why it wasn’t that way in the first place.
I’m also crazy about the girl who goes to the ranch with me. If we’re tidying up the woods, she’s a peewee power house at pushing over dead trees. She’s a wonderful person to sit by the fire with, or to ride with or first to be with when the sun goes down or the stars come out. If she ever stopped going to the ranch I’d stop too, because I’d see her in every beauty spot there is and I couldn’t stand that.
Then there is a sentimental lady I love whose eyes fill up so easily. On the other hand, she loves to laugh and her laugh is like tinkling bells. I hear those bells and feel good all over even if I tell a joke she’s heard before.
Fortunately, all these women in my life are you – fortunately for me that is, for there could be no life for me without you. Browning asked: ‘How do I love thee – let me count the ways?’ For there is no way to count. I love the whole gang of you — Mommie, first lady, the sentimental you, the fun you, and the peewee power house of you.
And oh yes, one other very special you — the little girl who takes a ‘nana’ to bed in case she gets hungry in the night. I couldn’t and don’t sleep well if she isn’t there — so please always be there.
Merry Christmas you all — with all my love,
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And lucky us. Lucky us for having known the public and the private Reagans.
For all of us who are married, divorced, or single, Ronnie and Nancy showed us that love is not only possible, but that it conquers all.
Love is why we’re here. To give it. And to receive it. With it, anything is possible. Without it, the world is barren.
Lee Habeeb is VP of content for Salem Radio Network and host of “Our American Stories.” He lives in Oxford, Mississippi, with his wife, Valerie, and his daughter, Reagan, who was named in Ronnie’s memory. This article originally appeared in LifeZette last year and has been updated.