June 28, 2004 12:00 PM

She had stayed strong throughout the long, extraordinary ordeal–the years of watching Alzheimer’s steal away the man she loved, and the weeklong public mourning that took her across the country and back again. Yet as the sun dipped behind the California hills at Ronald Reagan’s burial service June 11, his wife of 52 years finally succumbed to grief. Clutching the folded flag that had draped the coffin, Nancy Reagan wept openly and refused to leave her husband’s side. “The kids were very gently touching her and saying, ‘Let’s go, Mom.’ She didn’t want to go,” says John Barletta, a former Secret Service agent who served President Reagan for 17 years. Nancy herself described the moment to her friend Betsy Bloomingdale the next day, saying simply, “I lost it at the last.”

Now, widowed and due to celebrate her 83rd birthday on July 6, Nancy Reagan must find a way to go it alone. The solitude greeted her immediately: Exhausted by the grueling schedule of the funeral, she did not attend the postburial reception at the Ronald W. Reagan Presidential Library that evening and returned to her three-bedroom house in Bel Air. But at the front door she paused. “She was going home for the first time without him,” says 60 Minutes correspondent Mike Wallace, an old friend. She invited her children Patti and Ron inside, and Ron’s wife, Doria, whipped up scrambled eggs as the family reminisced in the kitchen. Says Wallace: “It was a good, homey, family feeling. She was very pleased.”

Just as she had been touched by other kind gestures–large and small–from the preceding week. George and Laura Bush, the Reagans’ hosts in Washington, decorated Blair House, the official government guest quarters, with photos of the Reagans, containers of the former President’s beloved jelly beans and a bouquet of peonies, one of Nancy’s favorite flowers. The former First Lady was awed by crowds who lined highways to watch the President’s cortege. “She kept saying, ‘The people have been so wonderful, the people are so wonderful,'” says Fred Ryan, a former Reagan aide.

Now that the crowds have gone home, Mrs. Reagan will remain in the Bel Air house, friends say–even though she must pass Ronald’s empty bedroom every time she enters her own. A pile of thousands of condolence letters, including a handwritten note from Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, awaits her attention. On July 23 she is scheduled to greet the recently launched aircraft carrier U.S.S. Ronald Reagan when it enters its home port of San Diego for the first time. And she will continue her fight (despite White House opposition) to secure federal funding for embryonic stem-cell research, which she believes may hold the key to a cure for Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. In that fight, she is backed by a family united by loss. “We are there to support Nancy in whatever she wants to do,” says stepson Michael. “Just like we supported her around my dad’s coffin.”

JD Heyman. Champ Clark in Los Angeles, Macon Morehouse in Washington, D.C., and Tom Duffy in New York City

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