Monday, December 3, 2007

Dead (Kids of) Presidents

I'm observing the current presidential primary hoo-ha with both personal and political interest this year. Putting aside my political angle for a moment, I'm especially interested in the paths of three candidates (that I know of, please correct me if I've missed someone) that have lost children: Joe Biden, John Edwards, and Fred Thompson.

In 1972, when Joe Biden was 29 and had just been elected to the Senate for the first time, his wife, daughter, and two sons were involved in a horrific car accident the week before Christmas. His wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed, and his two young sons were severely injured. On April 4, 1996, John and Elizabeth Edwards were informed by a policeman who drove up to their house that their 16-year-old son, Wade, had been killed in a car accident. And in January 2002, Fred Thompson's adult daughter, Betsy (from his first marriage), died of an accidental overdose. Thompson actually made the decision to remove her from life support.

Politics aside, these three individuals jump out at me, and I comb their words and expressions for signs: I'm wondering, to put it bluntly, how are they doing? How do they cope with this loss? How do they possibly move on? Do they love and find happiness again?

Biden remarried and had another daughter. He also takes off on the day that his wife and daughter died off every year, irregardless of his schedule, and goes to the cemetery and to mass. When a Sunday morning talking-head asked Biden if this godforsaken day was a "defining moment" in his life, Biden responded no. It was his worst moment, certainly, but he did not want to be defined by it. I think of this line, and often wonder if I will always be defined as she who lost her baby, by me and by others.

John and Elizabeth went on to have two more children. I was particularly impressed that on what would've been Wade's 17th birthday, they went to the pool and bought ice cream for every child there in a rather party-like atmosphere. I'd love to think I could be that thoughtful and magnanimous to include other children in the memory of the death of my own. But certainly not this year. The Edwards are both known to say, emphatically, that they have 4 children, and include Wade in the tally. When Elizabeth announced her cancer recurrence earlier this year, and John decided to stay in the race, there was a frenzy of media debate: was this a good or bad thing? Was this done merely for political purposes? And I simply said: I cannot judge them for what they do, because they have lost a child. They get a pass. They have been through the worst hell imaginable, and I'm sure this situation doesn't reach that level (yet), so they can make the call and it will be the right one for them. To quote "Wag the Dog," "THIS? Is nothing." (For what it's worth, Elizabeth credits her friend in the computer for keeping her sane while grieving.)

I don't know a lot about Thompson's family history other than the dates; his daughter died in January, 2002, and that summer he married his current (second) wife and proceeded to have two more children. I don't know his relationship with his adult daughter at the time of her death, or her mental status, but in a lot of ways, it just doesn't matter. He was there at the end, she was his, and he made a decision no parent should ever have to make. It's hard enough bringing them into this world, we shouldn't be the ones left coordinating their exits. Having lived through this nightmare, Thompson -- in contrast to some naively inexperienced members of his political party -- believes end of life decisions such as these are issues best left to individuals, not politicians or governments. (Amen.)

As it happens, I'm also an American Historian. And so, I got to thinking about Presidents who had lost children. I'm normally not one for Presidential trivia, or Presidents in and of themselves for that matter. I typically don't gravitate toward biography, instead preferring the sweeping generalizations of the masses and the subgroups therein. And yet now that I've actually looked up the following (god bless the internet), I'm a wee bit curious to read up on some of these guys and their wives and their families and see how everyone fared. There are a lot of them -- dead kids, and presidents with. There was a time not too long ago, when children dying was -- how to say this -- commonplace. Disease happened. There weren't vaccines and NICUs and whatnot, and without antibiotics and even antibacterial soap lots of creepy shit happened. Think what you will of Coolidge (boy, I know I did) but he lost his 16-year-old son, while in the White house, to a case of blood poisoning caused by a simple blister. But, advancements being what they are, the number of losses earlier-on is a bit larger than those in the last century. Many of the infants and toddlers on this list died of cholera, diphtheria, typhoid, and numerous childhood maladies-- including early delivery and blood poisoning -- that are now extinct thanks to medical advancements. Many of the adult daughters on the list died of complications in childbirth (the leading cause of death of women until well into the 20th century). All men, somehow survived the losses (in some cases, many, and in one case, all) of their children, although some not for long.

I wasn't so into cross-checking that I determined who lost children before, during, and after their terms in office (although the during was somewhat obvious, so I labeled a few of those). But I have to think if you survive the loss of a child, you're pretty much set for anything life has to throw at you. I marvel that people can carry on, and stand in front of others without screaming from the rooftops. How did they grieve? Did loss shape these men? It was so hard for me to get out of my house, can you even imagine grieving in front of an entire country in the most personal of ways? I'm not one to gravitate toward the powerful white men in history, and yet this intrigued me. Here, without further ado, a list of Presidents who lost children during their lifetimes, and the children they lost. If nothing else, it will be interesting conversation at your next Deadbabymama cocktail party. What, you don't have those?


(Note: List below updated 1/25/09)

John Adams: daughter, Susanna, age 2; Elizabeth, stillborn daughter; adult son, Charles, an alcoholic who died of cirrhosis at age 30.

Thomas Jefferson: Jane, one and a half years old; stillborn son; Lucy (I), 5 months old; Lucy (II), 2 years old; Mary, who died as an adult from complications from childbirth.

James Monroe: son, age 2.

John Q. Adams: adult son, of suicide; one year old daughter.

Martin Van Buren: adult son.

William Harry Harrison: 5 adult children, one child, age two (6 children total)

John Tyler: had 15 children in all (!), and lost three, two adults and one infant.

Zachary Taylor: 3 daughters: one 21, one 3, one 1.

Millard Fillmore: 22 year old daughter

Franklin Pierce: lost all three of his children -- one infant, one four year old, and his eleven-year-old son who was hit by a train.

Abraham Lincoln: three year old Edward, eleven-year-old Willie (while in office).

Andrew Johnson: two adult sons: one from a horse accident, and one from suicide.

Rutherford Hayes: 3 sons under the age of two

James Garfield: 3 year old daughter, 2 year old son.

Chester Arthur: 2 year old son

Grover Cleveland: twelve-year old Ruth, while in the white House.

President McKinley: lost both of his children: three year old Kate and infant Ida.

Theodore Roosevelt: twenty-year old son died during WWI.

Calvin Coolidge: sixteen-year-old son, while in the White House.

Franklin D. Roosevelt: infant son

Dwight Eisenhower: three-year-old son

John F. Kennedy: stillborn daughter; Patrick, two days old (while in office, and four months before the assassination of JFK)

Ronald Reagan: daughter, one day old

George H. W. Bush: three year old daughter


Beruriah said...

I knew about the Lincolns' and Adams' children, and that the Lincolns especially were devastated. But so many others, especially JFK and H.W., no idea. Wow.

niobe said...

I think (perhaps wrongly), that it must have been easier to lose a child when it was so commonplace. Once I was looking up some old census data and saw that there were separate columns listed for number of children born to a woman and number of children living. In very few cases were the numbers the same.

Also (and I say this all the time) for some of us, like me, the death of a child, while sad and difficult, is certainly not the worst thing that has ever happened to us. Not by a long shot. Not even close.

Anonymous said...

I am so very sorry about Maddy. For your family's loss and for her loss of life with a loving family.

I have often described the death of a child in this way: in life we have a blackboard on which we write all the things we are doing -- our jobs, coaching soccer, working at Goodwill, going to basketball games, whatever. And the board is full, so when the next thing comes along, we find a corner or the board to add a computer class or a space between other things for book club or sewing Halloween costumes. It is full and lively and seemingly all important.

And then your child dies, and all the things that were so important that you worked to squeeze them in? Well, they are all erased. And you are left with an empty blackboard. Everything you thought was important was not. And the next time you write something on the board, you are very, very careful about what it is. Your choices about what to do and how to do it are so much more deliberate. Doing something that is so patently important as public service -- whatever your politics -- well, that seems like an easy call. That is worth some of the space. And putting something on the board, well, it allows you -- in your words -- to function another day. And each day that you find something else worthy of the board makes it a little easier to put one foot in front of the other. And each day you functioned the day before makes it easier to function again. Are there still bad moments, even bad days nearly twelve years later? Sadly, there are. But they are not as frequent and they don't happen in that same emptiness you feel today. Now when they happen, we can turn to something that we have written, something worthy of our time, of his parents' time and we can function through that pain. As you will -- not without Maddy, but with Maddy not as a living, breathing daughter but as an inspiration and a helper to decide what is worthy of your blackboard.

Elizabeth Edwards

Julia said...

Elizabeth, if you are still here, that is a powerful, powerful description. It helps explain (to myself) a lot about how I have been in the last ten months-- a real aha moment. I am sorry you had the occasion to come up with such a clear and precise metaphor, I thank you for it, and I wish you and yours peace and strength.

Tash, I knew about Biden and Edwards. I had no idea about Thompson. I have issues with Senator Biden for other reasons (MBNA and bankruptcy bill, anyone?), and I have many-many issues with Thompson. But like it is for you, for me the part of each of them that is about the loss is sacred, not to be touched.

I also knew about HW, but not Kennedy (although something is stirring in the back of my mind to tell me I heard something sometime when it didn't mean anything to me), and not really anything about the earlier presidents, except Lincoln.

I don't think it was easier when it was more commonplace. I just think it was less isolating. You didn't need to go to the internets to find others who would understand-- your neighbor probably did.

meg said...

Tash, I think I was meant to be living back then. I have thought that so many times over the past 5 years. It would have been hard to lose all these babies, yes, but I wouldn't have been the complete freak show I am now--in today's society. I guess just a partial freak show.

As for the Deadbabymama cocktail parties? I think we need to have one of those, pronto.

Unknown said...

Wow, I had no idea about these losses...though I did know about the loss of John and Elizabeth's son. I was shocked when I heard of it in the last election cycle. Somehow I have always felt different way for John Edwards because of that...perhaps my fate of losing Birdie had already been sealed and my body and mind knew it. Its really intense to read that list, I thank you for sharing this information.

I have been starting to research mourning photography from the 1800's when it began up to now...and its astonishing how it is nearly completely disappeared from our society...its sad how we cannot face the reality of death, especially when that death is of a child.

I have to disagree with you Niobe, losing Birdie is by far the worst and most tragic thing to happen to me. Even though I a still able to function without her losing her is horrific to me.

whatthef*ck said...

first time here. incredible post and amazing comment by ee. my question is about your compassionate friends widget. how did you get it? i am so glad i saw yours and plan to light three candles in my home this sunday. the compassionate friends are in our area so i will check their website for a service. so glad that your widget alerted me to the upcoming event. i'd like to put it on my blog so i can remind others.

ms. G said...

Coming over from Beruriahs blog..this was an excellent post. I have often appreciated the way the Edwards speak of their son, including him in their children with such ease. Losing M was most certainly the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and honestly, I do feel it has defined so much of my life since then.

One fact I was shocked by in your list was George H.W. Bush. I had no idea. I knew of the Kennedys, and a curiosity I have is that I read somewhere that they are buried with their stillborn daughter, but I have never heard her name, or even if they named her at all. I guess because M was stillborn, I have always been interested in the details, what was that like for Jackie, back then? Did she get to hold her, see her?

Tash said...

Well, I suppose some sort of response is due here, eh? Firstly, I think Niobe that it was easier in the sense that it was expected to some degree, and as Julia said, people were surrounded by fellow mourners. I do think, though, "easy" is relative -- losses were profoundly difficult. I'm reminded of a portrait by J.S. Sargeant of a woman: her husband had the portrait done when he discovered she was pregnant, and fearing she would die in the process, wanted to preserve her memory. There are a few books on history of miscarriage/loss, and I plan to read them when I'm of a slightly better frame of mind.

Elizabeth, your metaphor is beautiful. And yet, my blackboard stares at me empty. Occasionally I scribble in small wee writing, "Take care of Bella." "Walk Dogs." But, you're right, lately as self-care has returned, "go to gym" has made its way on. And hopefully someday I can find more profound things to look forward to on my horizon that will be inscribed as well.

Meg, I often believe I wouldn't be alive anymore if I lived then. Too many hangnails gone amok, a couple instances of red streaks after cat bites and foot problems, and incessant ear infections.

Ms. G, I'm not sure, but definitely part of what I'd like to know as well. FWIW, I read "Diana" as beach reading this summer, and I believe it was her mother who suffered a stillbirth and they did not allow her to see the child and she was beyond upset at the decision. Don't quote me on that, my memory these days is just ass. In fact, maybe I should run and double check that was in fact the book right now . . . .

thrice said...

The Kennedy's also lost their first daughter Arabella

Okay, I need to go blow my nose now and re-compose myself.

Searching said...

Beautiful post and beautiful responses. I was thinking of you and Maddy this weekend.

Aurelia said...

This is an interesting list, to be sure.

I don't know if it makes it easier to be a mother in mourning when it was commonplace or not, but when average citizens hear that celebrities and politicians have problems just like their own, it raises awareness of the issue.

And that has to be good, right?

kate said...

So Arabella is the name of the Kennedy's stillborn daughter? Jackie also had a miscarriage, i think. Ronald Reagan lost a daughter who was born alive but extremely premature, with his first wife Jane Wyman. I had no idea about HW's daughter and really that one shocks me. I don't know exactly why but it shocks me.

It's not my blog but i also wanted to thank Elizabeth Edwards for adding her eloquent voice to our little corner of the blogosphere...

Tash said...

Kate, thank you, I ammended my list to include Reagan's daughter. Yes, Arabella seems to be the name of JFK's stillborn daughter -- I did not include everyone's names if I didn't know for certain, or couldn't check somewhere I trusted. (Plus I'm lazy.) I'm also curious to confirm that the miscarraige Jackie suffered was indeed that and that some unknowing male historian along the line confusing one for the other (because it would so not surprise me).

Also, Niobe, my first reaction to your comment was are you kidding me? but I really think it's in the experience. I've lived, I now realize, a very happy and stress-free life all things considered until this February. Others may have suffered other personal tragedies that because of who/where they are in life hit them harder than the death of a child. So I'm not sure it's the experience itself per se, but the ensuing reaction that makes it the worst thing. I'm sorry you've experienced worse, though.

The Goddess G said...

Thank you so much for posting this. This is something I have struggled with since Joseph's death. Certain times I feel like I wear a deadbabymomma sign that makes me a misfit. More and more often though I'm feeling that it was a life changing event. His death doesn't define me. But what I took time to learn about myself in the process...that has indeed defined me in the most positive way.

Slowly the living does return. I'm 16 months in...and find there are still some things returning.

Anonymous said...

wow. thanks for this list. i have often felt that women who lived through the deaths of multiple children, surrounded by other women just like them, must have had a slightly easier time. now we seem not to expect babies to die, and when they do, we seem not to know what to say. it's nice that the blogosphere can replicate that sense of community.

i just found your blog (thanks to aurelia). i delivered my second stillborn daughter in september of this year, and feel great affinity for the experiences and emotions you describe.

i'm glad you're blogging!

loribeth said...

I also found your blog & this post through Aurelia. I remember reading about Jackie Kennedy's three losses in a book, though I can't remember which one offhand. Everyone always mentions Patrick, but rarely do you hear about her miscarriage & Arabella, who was stillborn at 7 months. I've always admired her, but in recent years (afte my own loss & infertility), when I've thought about her trying to cope with all these losses & difficult pregnancies among that huge, fertile Kennedy clan and in the glare of public life... well, I've gained a whole new respect for the woman.

How nice of Elizabeth Edwards to take the time to post here. I appreciate her insight!

allison, a flea circus said...

I've only lurked here, and I'm not sure why. I don't have the words to explain, I just come. I've not even lost a child. I want to say I am so amazed at how you continue to get up and do? But you surely don't care about hearing that. Some might say you have Bella to live for, to continue for. I'm sure you feel that. But surely there were/are days that didn't/doesn't feel enough?

Maybe it's just being a mother myself, the mere thought is so terrifying. And you are right in the middle of the terror, voicing it. Niobe brings up a point that I've often contemplated, and decided that no, losing children being more common place must not make it easier. But again, I've not been in her shoes, either. Maybe a woman would have more support, as it happened to more, and more often. When I visit older grave sites, I am drawn to the little markers that so often line the side of a couple's plot. Often, with no names. It can't get easier, just because there are more. But then again, I'm only speculating.

Why did I comment? I really have no point. I just finally had to say I'd been reading, am touched by your story, and hope by saying something I'm not somehow imposing, or stepping into territory in which I have no business even reading, much less commenting, because I have not experienced what you have. I suppose I just wanted to say, when I look at my own children, and think of what you and many others have endured, I feel humbled. I also somehow feel more fragile, and remember (maybe you wrote this?) that griping about the mortgage, or the car's tires, or a filthy house, is a privilege. There truly are much worse things to deal with, and occasionally, I remember that when I feel overwhelmed. Does that sound trite? Insulting? I certainly do not mean for it to.

It's just that, from not even know ing you, you seem strong. I've dealt with depression, for no other reason than chemical, so know a bit about wanting to disappear, not keep putting one foot in front of the other. But even that seems indulgent, when I think that in the middle of that depression, everything around me was OK. I had no material reason to feel that bad, sad, angry. You certainly have, and do.

God, I really am rambling, and apologize. I usually gather my thoughts better than this. Maybe I should just delete, rather than post, but maybe what I'm trying to get around to, is that by sharing your pain, you do help some of us remember to be less whiny, and a bit more grateful. It's so easy to take what we do have for granted. And again, I'm sure that's not your point either, so I do not mean to insult. Compared to the experience represented in your other comments, including Elizabeth Edwards, I really have no business even being here.

OK, bottom line, and I promise to never darken your comments again...just, as a woman, a mother, I think of you, and don't even know you, pray for you and your family, when I remember to pray at all, and maybe it's just because Maddy was born within a couple of days of our baby, now almost 10 months, you, and she remain in my thoughts. I know I can't imagine your pain, but do most earnestly wish for whatever level of healing can happen for you, and your family. Wow. Sometimes words really are inadequate.