19. Death

I think rather of the unknown Afterwards, the next Event, the Land of Finding Out--the Great Adventure that’s before us all. - Louise Pond Jewell, The Great Adventure

A short time before Theodore died he wrote a friend:

Well, friend, you and I are in the range of the rifle pits; from now on until we ourselves fall - and that date cannot be so many years distant - we shall see other whom we love fall. It is idle to complain or to rail at the inevitable; serene and high of heart we must face our fate and go down into the darkness.1

In the early morning hours of January 6, 1919, Theodore died of a pulmonary embolism. If suffering is God’s way of molding our character, Theodore’s character did not need any further molding. He died quickly, painlessly and in his sleep.

Corinne wrote that her telephone rang “and my sister-in-law’s voice, gentle and self-controlled, though vibrant with grief, told me that he was gone, and that she wanted me to come at once to Sagamore...That afternoon Mrs. Roosevelt and I walked far and fast along the shore and through the woodlands he had loved, and on our return in the waning winter twilight we suddenly became conscious that airplanes were flying low around the house. In a tone of deep emotion Mrs. Roosevelt said: “They must be planes from the camp where Quentin trained. They have been sent as a guard of honor for his father.”2

Theodore was no more. Yet for the next eighty plus years people made their way to Sagamore Hill, searching for his spirit. For the next twenty years his friends met on the anniversary of his death to visit his grave and talk about him fondly. For the next several years, a grandson who had never met him, spoke of seeing his smiling ghost in the house. He is gone, yet books are still being written about him: his inspiration to biographers is boundless. People still visit his house and the place where he was born. Members of the Theodore Roosevelt Association still meet over the internet and in person to talk about him and donate money to keep his house and birthplace in good repair. He is like Abraham Lincoln in that just reading about him brings out “the better angels of our nature.”

It is hard to believe that he is really dead. I visited Sagamore Hill last summer and sat several hundred yards from the house. I listened to the wind rustle the leaves of the huge trees and felt the magic timelessness of the place. Theodore loved it there. His last words to his wife had been, “I wonder if you will ever know how I love Sagamore Hill.”3

At his grave I felt nothing. There may be a dried, discarded husk in that grave but there is no Theodore Roosevelt there. He has become a spirit to fill the hearts of all Americans with a desire to be better, a desire to see our country and President become better. He not only has done his job and done it well, but in some ways he is still doing it.