2/25/13 - The light has gone out of my life

In today's selection -- it is well known that President Theodore "Teddy" Roosevelt was frail and sickly as a young child as a result of life-threatening asthma, and he overcame this adversity through a demanding physical regimen he placed on himself. What is less well known is that later, as a young man, Roosevelt suffered even greater adversity -- the death of his father, mother and first wife within a few short years. He again met this adversity and the resulting depression -- what he called "black care" -- through a strenuous, self-imposed physical challenge:

"During his sophomore year at Harvard, [Theodore Roosevelt's] father -- 'the best man I ever knew' -- died from stomach cancer at the age of forty-six. Blindsided, Roosevelt reeled from the greatest loss of his young life. 'If I had very much time to think,' he wrote in his diary, 'I believe I should go crazy.'

"After his father's funeral, Roosevelt fought back. Upon finishing the school year, he fled to Oyster Bay [in Long Island, New York] to wrestle with his grief and anger in seclusion. In the small, heavily wooded village where his family had long spent their summers, he swam, hiked, hunted, and thundered through the forest on his horse Lightfoot, riding so hard that he nearly destroyed her. Then, before returning to Harvard, he disappeared into the Maine wilderness with an ursine backwoods man named Bill Sewall. 'Look out for Theodore,' a doctor traveling with Roosevelt advised Sewall. 'He's not strong, but he's all grit. He'll kill himself before he'll even say he's tired.'

"Roosevelt emerged from that summer determined to survive any loss. And loss would come. Following his father's death, Roosevelt had a string of successes; He graduated from Harvard with honors, married Alice Lee -- a pretty blonde who he was certain would never have him, 'but,' he insisted, 'I am going to have her!' -- and, at twenty-three, was elected New York State's youngest assemblyman. In 1884, however, when he was only twenty-five years old, Roosevelt was called home by an ominous telegram. When he arrived, he found that the two most important women in his life -- his mother and his young wife -- were dying, At 3:00 a.m. on February 14, Valentine's Day, Martha Roosevelt, still a vibrant, dark-haired Southern belle at forty six, died of typhoid fever. Eleven hours later, her daughter-in-law, Alice Lee Roosevelt, who had given birth to Theodore's first child just two days before, succumbed to Bright's disease, a kidney disorder. That night, in his diary, Roosevelt marked the date with a large black 'X' and a single anguished entry: 'The light has gone out of my life.'

Theodore Roosevelt & Alice Hathaway Lee

"Desperate to conquer his despair, Roosevelt resorted to the only therapy he knew: physical hardship and danger. He left his infant daughter with his sister Anna and boarded a train for the Dakota Badlands, where he hoped to find the kind of hard existence that might keep his body and mind too busy to ache for Alice. Roosevelt rarely spoke about that terrible night or about his first wife -- even to their daughter, who was named for the mother she would never know. He was a different man when he finally returned east for good two years later. He was filled with vigor and perspective after mastering an entirely unfamiliar world of danger on the American frontier -- and defeating, by sheer energy and physical exertion, the grief that had threatened to overwhelm him. 'Black care,' he explained, in a rare unguarded comment on the subject, 'rarely sits behind a rider whose pace is fast enough.' "



Candice Millard


The River of Doubt: Theordore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey


Broadway Books


Copyright 2005 by Candice Millard


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