Theodore Roosevelt clutched the two telegrams, shifting uncomfortably in the train—leaning forward, tapping his foot, trying to hurry on the frustratingly slow steam engine. Roosevelt was a man with a beautiful wife, a new baby, a brilliant political career, and the patronage and wealth of an aristocratic family behind him. Now, all this seemed in danger. The young assemblyman from Albany was making his way 145 miles south to Manhattan, where his wife and his mother both lay dying. On a clear day the train ride from Albany to Manhattan took five hours, but a heavy fog had been hovering over New York for days, seeming to portend what lay ahead for him. Teddy Roosevelt tapped his foot impatiently and stared at the first telegram. You have a baby girl. Congratulations. The second telegram told a much different story. Come at once. Mother and Alice gravely ill. The light went out for Roosevelt that day as he ran for the train. The man who valued action above all else could now do nothing but wait to be delivered to destiny.
Roosevelt stared out the window. The fog reminded him of when he was a boy and he would sleep sitting straight up because his asthma squeezed his small chest. On such nights, his father would take him out in his carriage. They would ride like the wind through the streets of New York. “Open your mouth Teddy! Open your mouth!” his father instructed. “Let the air in!” And, as in a primitive oxygen ventilator, he would open his mouth and feel the cool air go down his throat and inflate his lungs. The image of a man frantically driving a black, rain-slicked carriage through the night streets of New York, and a boy hanging off the side with his mouth open to the heavens—it was all his father could do, after walking up and down the hallway with him all night. The rich man’s son could get no air, and his father could only admonish the boy to open his mouth while he sped the horses savagely along. “Faster! Faster! For my son must breathe!”
Now the train was pulling into Grand Central Station. The young dandy ran for his home in a fog so thick he could only grope his way toward 57th Street, where the lordly Roosevelt mansion commanded the street. Finally, he ran up the stairs to where his young wife, Alice, lay in bed. She was dying of Bright’s disease, an affliction of the kidneys causing fever, vomiting, terrible back pain, and bloody urine. They had just married the year before, but now the love of his life was dying in his arms.