***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected copy proof***
Copyright © 2018 Stephanie Marie Thornton
Given the choice, I’d have preferred a sudden heart attack in the Senate audience gallery to this mundane death by surgery.
I squint in vain against the garish hospital lights, the walls a phosphorescent white that blur painfully into the nurses’ sterile uniforms. Perhaps even something as dull as dying warm in my own bed would have sufficed. But the villainies of age continue, and I find myself instead subjected to the injustice of a starched hospital gown and the impending threat of a scalpel.
“Are you comfortable, ma’am?”
I’m about to be drugged and butchered. Of course I’m not comfortable, you moonbrain.
I wave away the nurse’s inane question with a hand so spotted and gnarled it might have belonged to a Pharaonic mummy. Sometimes I scarcely recognize the white-haired biddy I’ve become; I miss the hedonistic hellion who smoked foul-smelling cigarettes on the roof of the White House, feted mustachioed German princes and an iron-fisted Chinese empress, and inspired the rage for the color Alice Blue in the spring of 1902.
“I’m fine,” I lie to the nurse. “After all, I’m about to become Washington’s only topless octogenarian.” My voice trembles with age, and if I admit it, a hefty dose of fear even as my pulse thuds in my ears.
I shouldn’t be afraid. After all, I’ve been through this before, almost fifteen years ago—not to mention all the other painful procedures I’ve undergone over the years—but the cancer returned so now the other breast has to go. I shouldn’t be attached to a lump of sagging flesh, or even life itself now that I’m just an old fossil. But I’ve always drunk greedily from the cup of life, even when it was its most bitter.
At eighty-six years old, I’m not done living.
A warm hand in mine banishes a fraction of my fear. “I’ll be waiting outside, Grammy.” Joanna’s pale brown hair is loose around her face; she looks so like me when I was her age. “I’d sit with you in the operating room if they’d let me.”
I pat her hand. “I know you would, darling,” I say as the nurse gives the intravenous needle an efficient tap and swabs the inside of my elbow with a cool pad of alcohol. “And if this is the end . . .”
“I’ll have you buried wearing your Cuban pearls, in the plot you picked out right next to her. I swear it.” Joanna kisses me on the forehead as the needle pricks the thin flesh of my arm. “But that’s not going to happen. Not today.”
“If you say so.”
I recall as if through a haze receiving those pearls before my wedding day, but then my mind tilts drunkenly as the nurse wheels me into surgery. I think of my father, barrel-chested and booming-voiced even after being shot by a would-be assassin, brandishing the bleeding, undressed bullet wound to a worshipful crowd. My earliest memory pushes its way in, of trying to clamber onto his lap, me frocked in a pink dress while he still wore leather chaps that smelled of the dusty Dakota Badlands. Train whistles shrieked and engines roared as he’d brushed me off and handed me back to my aunt.
“I can’t,” he’d said even as I reached up empty arms for him. “She has her eyes . . . I just can’t.”
Oh, Father . . .
I’ve seen sixteen presidents come and go—including my father with his spectacled face chiseled on Mount Rushmore, and my crowd-pleasing, fedora-toting cousin Franklin. Yet, they’re all gone and I’m still here, the other Washington Monument.
Where on earth did I even get that name? I scowl, unable to jar loose which journalist dubbed me with the title. I suppose it doesn’t matter now.
The terror of the surgical theater brings me back to reality, with its glaring lights and swarm of white-garbed physicians. “We’re going to start your anesthesia in a moment, ma’am,” one says to me. “Can you count backward, starting from ten?”
I scoff, for I won’t waste my final moments with counting numbers. I count memories instead, with crystal clarity: burying a bad little idol of Nellie Taft in the White House gardens, calling President Harding a decaying emperor, and comparing cousin Franklin to Hitler. (Not my finest moment, that.)
Merry hell, but my tongue has gotten me into trouble.
Perhaps I might have swallowed some of the things I said and protected feelings here and there, but it’s too late to undo things. And as the world begins to blur with a heady mix of sedative and memories, I muse that at least if I die on the operating table in this goddamned hospital, I’ll never regret grabbing life by the throat and refusing to let go, despite the mistakes I’ve made.
But then, if you live as long as I have, you’re bound to make a few mistakes here and there. They say that it’s the mistakes that make life more interesting.
If that’s the case, then I’ve led the world’s most interesting life . . .
I can hardly recollect a time when I was not
aware of politics and politicians.
Adirondack Mountains, New York
I peered through the rain coursing down the cabin’s front window and frowned at the frantic Adirondacks park ranger who rapped hard on our door, water dripping from his hat onto his drab uniform that was already drenched. “Mr. Roosevelt!” he hollered, his bushy brows drawn together like late-season caterpillars. “Mr. Theodore Roosevelt!”
Edith, my stepmother, hadn’t finished unpacking her bags from an overnight campout and swung open the door mid-bang, stopping the ranger with his meaty fist still raised. “I’m afraid the vice president isn’t here,” Mother informed him in her most mollifying voice, smoothing back her damp hair even as I shoved deep my jealousy at the mud that stained her skirt’s hem and the fragrance of a jolly campfire that still clung to her.
Mother doesn’t even like camping. Whereas I . . .
I made a face behind her back before resuming the task of adjusting my hairpins in the hall’s tiny mirror, expertly stabbing them into the coiled plait of brown hair twisted atop my head while imagining the party I planned to attend tonight, where I might happily forget there were such things as parents, presidents, or politics. I’d turn eighteen this February and had been experimenting with various hairstyles for my debut ball, none of which met my approval considering that Mother refused to buy me the pearl combs I craved for my pompadour. Too expensive, she claimed, forgetting that a girl comes out only once, and thus deserves the most lavish accessories that money can buy.
As always, I tried not to let it bother me that all my younger half siblings were granted whatever pets and toys they set their hearts on, further evidence that I would forever be other when it came to our family. I supposed I could always use my inheritance from my mother if I couldn’t live without the hair combs.
“Mr. Roosevelt isn’t here?” the ranger parroted back to Mother, sweeping off his unfortunate hat to wring it in his hands, so I doubted whether the waterlogged leather would ever recover. “Where is he?”
Archie and Quentin’s cowboy rodeo down the hallway involved much whooping and hollering, interspersed with an angry crowing; my brothers had recently adopted a foul-tempered, one-legged rooster that enjoyed chasing the younger children. “Alice?” Mother asked suggestively, inclining her head toward the children’s rooms, but I pretended not to notice.
“My father is hiking Mount Marcy today,” I answered for her, tossing myself into a leather-slung chair and plucking a red apple from the bowl on the sideboard. Its crisp taste exploded in my mouth in a burst of autumn as I idly kicked the flounced hem of my dress, much to my stepmother’s horror. I’d watched Father depart at yesterday’s sunrise with her, Archie, and my little sister Ethel for an overnight trip to Lake Colden and had hoped to join them, even though they’d planned to turn around early to allow Father to hike Mount Marcy in peace today.
“Can I come too?” I’d asked, but my father had only shaken his head, a rare shaft of sunlight glinting off his spectacles, his gaze not on me but on the craggy mountain in the distance.
“You won’t be able to keep up, Sissy.”
The truth hurt, for despite being fully recovered, I was still wobbly on uneven ground after spending years in metal leg braces (more like medieval torture devices) to correct a mild bout of childhood polio. He saw my disappointment and sighed. “Perhaps next time.”
That’s what he always said, but there was never a next time.
When I was six years old, I’d been chastised for trying to walk like Father, mimicking his mix of cowboy-boxer swagger that Mother deemed entirely unladylike. At ten, I’d been reprimanded for trying to talk like him, peppering dee-lighted into every other sentence and grinning in a way no gently bred girl ever should. Now, at seventeen, I’d have hiked to Canada barefoot if it meant spending an afternoon with just him and me.
Instead, it’s the same as always, any excuse so my own father doesn’t have to spend time with me.
For no matter how Father romped and played with his five other children—Mother’s children—I was always the child who carried his first wife’s name and blue-gray eyes.
And nothing I did would ever make up for that crime.
“I’ll have to ride to find him,” the ranger said, wiping the rain from his face before stuffing his mangled hat back onto his head.
“Perhaps you could leave a message?” Mother motioned for one of the maids to check on the children. A real humdinger of a fight seemed to be breaking out between Archie and the rooster.
“I’m afraid not, Mrs. Roosevelt,” he said. “For it pertains to President McKinley.”
His words threw a sudden chill into the air. Only a week ago, the entire nation had been stunned when an anarchist shot President McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo. The wound was a nasty affair—as I suppose it always is when a man is shot twice in the abdomen at point-blank range—but McKinley seemed to improve after a gynecologist found on the fairgrounds performed emergency surgery to remove the first bullet. The president rallied so much that my father, America’s vice president, had insisted that we keep our scheduled trip here in the Adirondacks.
A little chaos was no match for my father’s well-laid plans, not when there were mountains to conquer, rivers to ford, and wild game to shoot. Plus, Father had no desire to seem as if he were hovering over the president, waiting for him to die even as the newspapers and a constant stream of telegrams reported that McKinley had been growing sicker over the past days. Mother’s fingers fluttered to her mouth, as if to trap the impertinent question on her lips.
I, however, had no such qualms. Perhaps it seemed callous, as if I had no pity for the dying McKinley, and I did feel a pang of grief for him, but I could feel the surge of history in the making, beating in my blood and carrying me with it.
“Is the president dead?” My feet were firmly on the floor as I leaned forward in my chair, all thoughts of tonight’s party forgotten as Mother came to stand beside me.
The ranger shook his head in a manner almost reverential.
“Not dead,” he answered. “Dying of blood poisoning. They say he won’t last the night.”
Mother clutched my hand as the ranger tipped his hat to us and mounted his sorrel horse, kicking the animal’s ribs and tearing off in the direction of Mount Marcy, to fetch my father back to Buffalo in case he suddenly became the most important man in America.
“Lord help us.” Mother crushed my palm as if a handful of my bone fragments would give her strength. I extricated myself and left her in the hall.
“What’s happening, Sissy?” My little sister Ethel poked her head out of the room we shared, her blond hair parted after a fresh bath following her camping trip and combed to gleaming perfection around her ten-year-old face. Skip, our feisty rat terrier, yipped at my feet, but for once I ignored him.
“Father’s going to be president,” I said slowly, staring out the window as my mind raced ahead to what this meant for us. I’d always resented the fact that Father had been shoved unwillingly into the token position that was the vice presidency, but had never really considered that he might one day be president.
That I might be the president’s daughter.
President McKinley died at two fifteen the following morning, plunging America into a shocked grief and rousing us remaining Roosevelts from our sleepless beds to begin the long trek by buckboard and train to the nation’s capital.
I gaped when the carriage finally turned onto Pennsylvania Avenue and allowed me my first glimpse of the Executive Mansion’s stately white pillars, its curved portico shrouded in deep autumn shadows, and the dark velvet curtains in all the windows drawn as if the entire building was asleep and waiting for us.
“Which room do you think will be ours?” Ethel murmured from beside me, but I didn’t answer, struck speechless for perhaps the first time in my life.
This was our new home.
My father was now president of the United States of America.
And that meant I was now First Daughter.