The True Story of Lincoln and His Doctor
By Anne K. Kaler
The President folded himself into the straight-backed chair beside me as I tended to his dying son Willie.
“Any change, doctor?”
I reached for Willie’s limp wrist still hoping for a steadier pulse.
“No, sir, no change. I paused. “At least no pain as far as I can tell.” I settled back into my chair beside the bed. “Your Willie’s a lot like you, Mr. President. He’s a fighter. He won’t give up easily either.”
Lincoln reached over to whisk away a fly near his son’s face. “How do you manage to see death every day to see the young ones, like Willie here, an innocent if ever there was one, to see them slip into that darkness of death. How can you stand it day after day?”
“Time, I guess. And faith that the dying are going to a better place than our weary world.”
“Faith, of course,” Lincoln said. “But, as a scientist, how can you put all your trust in a life after death when you can’t prove it. Or at least no one has proven it successfully.”
I smiled. “It’s a long story shortened into three familiar words, Mr. Lincoln. What I do here, helping those who can no longer help themselves, is Charity. Hope is like a scampering mouse dodging my wife’s broom, always beyond her reach but always moving ahead. But Faith, my friend, Faith is rooted in the deepest part of my being. It is so deep that no surgeon could cut it out.”
“What made that faith so deep within you, doctor?”
“My daughter, sir, my Bella.” I paused to wonder how my acceptance of death could be of interest to this great leader of the United States sitting beside me.
“Why? Did she die and that’s why you believe?” President Lincoln asked. “You’ve have a visitation from her, a proof of life after death?”
“No, indeed, Mr. President. My Bella’s happily married and the mother of three and in splendid health. But it is she who taught me the simple truth of faith. Would you like to hear it, sir, my Bella’s story?”
The president nodded.
“As Southerners, we cherish our dogs for their hunting skill, not for companionship. Nevertheless, Bella, Isabella Jane, was just a toddler when she spotted the runt of one of our litters . As my wife says, “That Algery dog plum stole her heart away.” Algery and Bella were inseparable as shadows growing up together. He would sit on her lap, just as a child sits on a parent’s lap, and let her feed him tidbits from her own plate. When she’d read aloud to him, I swear he followed the story line, as if they were communicating on a different level.”
“When Bella was twelve, just about your Willie’s age, Algery became so sick that no cure existed for him. Old age, mostly, and stressed breathing. One day he simply crawled up into Bella’s arms and sighed his last breath.”
“Her mother and I were concerned for Bella, of course. After all, it was just a dog that died. But Bella accepted Algery’s death with a maturity we had never seen in her before. When I pressed to console her, she explained in the simplest terms why she could not truly mourn for the dog. To be honest, sir, her explanation stumped me. Did I believe in the existence of God? I couldn’t admit to Bella my doubts, as a scientist, so I turned the question back to her. Her answer was one that has kept me in hope and faith.”
“God,” she said, “would not let a personality like Algery just disappear from the world, would He? After He went to all that trouble to create such a wonderful dog who kept me company and brought me joy all those years? Of course not, so He is not going to let me disappear or dissolve into nothingness. All I have to do is to remember that I will see Algery again so I can’t be truly sad for his death, even though I miss him terribly. I know that I will see him again.”
The room grew quiet as the president considered what I had just said. His long face was etched with deep lines but the impending death of his son had deepened the crevices as he looked over at his dying son. “Willie, too, had a pet dog – Big Blue — who died last year. Even when we buried the dog outside the White House, Willie never cried , not once. His mother and I worried why he did not grieve long for Big Blue.”
“I see,” I said but I could only imagine how he felt with the fate of our divided country ever in his mind. Slowly Lincoln’s emotions seemed to settle into a hard-won peace. “Doctor,” the president said, “Willie is the most sensitive child of my four and he never cried after his dog died. I often wonder why he did not shed even a tear. Perhaps…” his voice quavered with unspoken words.
“Perhaps, indeed, sir. I hope so. It will make his passing easier if he has a friend up there waiting for him, won’t it?’
“Perhaps it will, doctor, perhaps it will be easier for Willie than for the rest of us who are left behind.”
I cleared my throat. “Perhaps it will be easier for Willie as it was for my daughter. I choose to believe that it will.”
NOTE: This story is based on an old publisher’s dream book which would guarantee sales because it contained five important topics — Abraham Lincoln, doctors, daughters, dogs, and death.
Anne K. Kaler, Ph.D. As a life-long reader, Anne (always with an “e”) is now attempting to read every book in the universe, while helping to publishing more. Surprised to learn that she was actually a teacher, she persisted in that field for nearly fifty years until she started volunteering at PSB.