“The light has gone out of my life”
One hundred and thirty years ago on this day, an ambitious young man stepped down from the front stoop of his home in Oyster Bay as a proud new father. A joyous occasion, indeed.
This February 14, 1884 was expected to be a Valentines Day to remember. And it was. But not for reasons anyone, least of all the bright young attorney, could possibly have envisioned.
The young man, then 25, lived and worked in New York City. He had a promising political career. He was well off, even prosperous by standards of the day. Married happily for four years and now father to a newborn daughter, future possibilities seemed to know no bounds.
But this day wouldn’t be remembered as a joyous occasion. Early that morning, the man was shaken to learn his mother died from typhoid fever. This crushing news was almost too much to bear, instantly transforming emotions of joyous fulfillment to utter despair.
The nightmare was only beginnning. Only hours after hearing of his mother’s passing, the man’s wife who had just given birth lost all conciousness. She slipped into a coma. Then unexpectedly to everyone’s horror, she took her last breath. Turned out, the pregnancy had concealed a serious disease within her body, and she died from kidney failure.
Learning of his mother’s passing on this day had been difficult enough. But the stunning news of his wife’s unforeseen death went way beyond what any person could deal with. This Valentines Day, normally an occasion to celebrate love and life, had instead brought loss and death to the two people closest to the young man, filling him with a pain that would not subside.
That evening, the young man, stunned by the terrible events of the day, tried to make some sense of it all. He returned to his home in Oyster Bay and departed into his private study, where there was calm and quiet. This was an occasion to mourn and also reflect. He opened his diary and wrote the following words:
The light has gone out of my life. [See Notes Below]
Months passed. Time may heal all wounds, but these wounds were especially deep and sorrowful. Not only that, but it took time for the man to adjust to the ways of being a single father. After enduring loss, the man somehow had to carry on and do the things that needed to be done, if not for himself, then for his daughter who now needed him to be strong.
The man suffered tremendous difficulties during this period, as anyone would. It was especially difficult returning to work again, where the skulldrudgery of practicing law just didn’t seem meaningful anymore in light of the tragic events of his own life.
He also suffered a major political setback in his early dealings as a freshman New York state assemblyman. He event went so far as to declare he had no interest in ever running for political office again. And so the young father and burned out ex-politician decided some changes were needed. Major changes. He needed to get away from it all, as far away as possible from the place where those painful memories and loss lingered.
As someone of privilege, the man had used those considerable advantages wisely. He’d traveled around. He talked with people from all walks of life. He saw interesting places. He’d been exposed to mysterious wonders and seen extraordinary splendor and beauty within the national boundaries of his own country, so far largely unkown and unappreciated, but also so unsploiled.
The man packed up what he had and moved to the Badlands, in North Dakota where he turned to ranching. This new way of life was as different from what he had left behind as one could possibly imagine. The western frontier hadn’t been conquered yet. Life wasn’t easy. It was a constant struggle. Yet this singular sense of purpose, raising livestock on the open prairie and surviving in the harshest of conditions, became a catharsis, a purification of the emotions and cleansing of the soul.
Then came the devastating winter of 1885-1886.
The man lost everything. That winter on the American plains was especially cruel to those few brave enough to endure its blows, destroying the man’s entire herd of cattle and wiping out his total investment, and then some. The man was ruined.
With no other option than to New York and practice law again, the man recalimed his old life and began anew. By age 28, he’d suffered death, defeat, loss, and ruin. He seemed without purpose. Whatever the man tried to achieve, had failed. It seemed this man had no future at all. It seemed he’d never amount to anything.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would soon become New York City Police Commissioner, a post he would use to radically reform what had been one of the country’s most corrupt law enforcement organizations.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would later become Assistant Secretary of the Navy. His philosophy on international affairs would later come to be summed up in his famous quote: “Speak softly, but carry a big stick.”
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would eventually join of a calvary division called The Rough Riders. After resigning his plum Navy post, the man went where rich people normally didn’t venture. He fought in the Spanish-American War, mostly notably in the Battle of San Juan Hill.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would eventually become Governor of the State of New York. He was so insistent on governing with total transparency, that he held two press conferences — each day!
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” eventually became Vice President of the United States. He served for only six months and then was summarily jolted into the highest office in the land, a course of events no one could have foreseen.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” eventually became President of the United States. He served nearly two full terms in office, 1901-1909.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” became one of the most transformational leaders in American history. This all happened during a period of immense corruption and unprecedented growth from a flood of new immigrants who struggled to define thier own American experience. His policies broke up powerful monopolies, increased worker wages, instituted safety measures and consumer protections, and reformed commerical and banking laws. He was the first “progressive” president.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would eventually be the individual most responsible for establishing America’s National Park Service. His love of nature and the oudoors motivated him to become a lifelong environmentalist.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would actually keep a campaign promise not to run for re-election in 1908. While he undoubtedly would have won re-election in a landslide, he stepped down from office, as promised. The man thought he could do a lot more for the country if he didn’t have to worry about getting re-elected, and spend so much time campaigning.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would eventually launch the most succcessful third-party campaign in U.S. history. He came to realize the two-party system inhibited the principles of democracy.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would actually be shot in a failed assasination attempt while on the campaign trail in 1912. The bullet partially lodged into his chest. The man decided to go ahead and give a speech to his followers who had gathered on that day, while blood seeped out from his chest and onto his shirt.
— The man who once wrote “the light has gone out of my life” would eventually become editor of Outlook magazine. He would also go on to write an astounding 18 books, mostly on nature, politics, and poetry.
That’s a dozen things this incredible man went on to accomplish in his career, following the darkest day of his life. This is something to remember perhaps when we have a tough time, suffer a bad day, or face struggles in our own lives.
Today, 130 years after those memorable words were written, it is we who see the glow of his light and who continue to bask in the warmth of that flame, a flicker of hope that had supposedly been extinguished on a wintery night in 1884, but which continued to burn for many years beyond.
Note 1: This was originally intended to be posted on Valentines Day, two days ago.
Note 2: This initially began as an exercise to write an essay about someone without ever using the person’s name.
Note 3. The photo at the top is Alice Hathaway Lee Roosevelt, Teddy’s first wife who died in 1884.
Note 4: The photo at bottom is the official presidential portrait of Teddy Roosevelt, which hangs in the White House.
Note 5: “The light has gone out of my life” was the only diary entry of Febryary 14, 1884. He later wrote in his private memoirs: She was beautiful in face and form, and lovelier still in spirit; As a flower she grew, and as a fair young flower she died. Her life had been always in the sunshine; there had never come to her a single sorrow; and none ever knew her who did not love and revere her for the bright, sunny temper and her saintly unselfishness. Fair, pure, and joyous as a maiden; loving, tender, and happy. As a young wife; when she had just become a mother, when her life seemed to be just begun, and when the years seemed so bright before her — then, by a strange and terrible fate, death came to her. And when my heart’s dearest died, the light went from my life forever.
Note 6: President Richard Nixon later used this quote in his farewell speech to the White House staff, shortly before resigning the presidency in 1974.