Excerpts for Death Be Not Proud : A Memoir

Death Be Not Proud

By John J. Gunther

HarperCollins Publishers, Inc.

Copyright © 2006 John J. Gunther
All right reserved.

ISBN: 0060929898

Chapter One

Johnny came home for the Christmas holiday in 1945, and he looked fit and fine. He was lengthening out physically and otherwise, as children do all of a sudden, responding as it were to the release of some hidden inner spring. We saw a lot of each other, and just before getting on the train to return to school in January, he exclaimed, "Pop, that was the best ten days I ever had!" He didn't often confess personal emotions so freely, and I was pleased. Then in March, 1946, he came down again for the long spring holiday. Frances and I took him to several Broadway shows, including Show Boat and Antigone—he liked Antigone best; he went to lectures on atomic physics; Frances took him to the public dinner given by the City of New York to Winston Churchill—it was the first, and last, time he ever wore a dinner jacket, borrowed from his uncle; he won the critical game in a chess match against another school (he was captain now of the Deerfield chess team); he monkeyed with his chemicals and read the manuscript of the early chapters of Inside U.S.A. which was just then getting under way. I thought he seemed tired, but I did not take this seriously, believing it to be the normal reaction from a regime as vigorous as that of Deerfield, together with the strains of adolescence. He had his usual check with Traeger, our family physician, who pronounced him perfectly all right. Also he had a check with an eye doctor. This was important. Johnny had suffered some eye strain the summer before and was taking exercises to strengthen his visual acuity. The eye doctor found nothing wrong; in fact, the eyes had improved to a considerable degree. The day after the examination by Traeger, Johnny complained suddenly of a slight stiff neck. If this had happened before Traeger saw him, I would have been more concerned, but since he had just been given a clean bill of health, we did not take anything so minor as a stiff neck seriously. Indeed, it disappeared after a day, and Johnny went back to school, sighing a little that the holiday was over but happy and full of energy and anticipation.

Deerfield had an infantile paralysis case that spring, and, as is the custom of the school with its strict standards, all parents were notified at once. Then in the third week of April I had a wire from the school doctor, Johnson, saying that Johnny was in the infirmary but, though he had a stiff neck, there was no indication of polio and we were not to worry. Nothing at all alarming was indicated. Boys get stiff necks and Charley horses all the time. In fact, Dr. Johnson said, he was informing us of Johnny's complaint only because, knowing of the polio scare and hearing that he was in the infirmary, we might think that he did have polio, which he didn't. I called Johnny up, and we talked briefly. He was lonely and fretful at missing a week of class work, but otherwise nothing seemed to be amiss. He was going into the nearby town the next day to have a basal metabolism test, and Dr. Johnson asked me to find out from Traeger when he had last had a basal, and what it was. I reported all this to Frances, and thought little more of it. Later we found that Johnny might not have gone to the infirmary at all, since he would never admit it when he was ill and never complained, except that one of his classmates, observing his stiff neck, insisted on his seeing the doctor. Then, wisely, Dr. Johnson held him for observation. Had this not happened, he might have died then and there.

At about three in the afternoon on Thursday, April 25, the telephone rang in our New York apartment. Just at that moment I had finished the California chapters of my book, and I had intended calling Johnny that night to tell him.

Without hesitation or warning Dr. Johnson said, "We've had a doctor in from Springfield to see your son—Dr. Hahn, a neurologist. Here he is."

Dr. Hahn said, "I think your child has a brain tumor."

I was too stunned to make sense. "But that's very serious, isn't it?" I exclaimed.

Dr. Hahn said, "I should say it is serious!" He went on, in a voice so emphatic that it was almost strident, "His disks are completely choked."

"His what?"

"Ask any doctor in the world what that means—choked disks!" he shouted.

He proceeded to describe other symptoms, and implored me with the utmost urgency to get in touch at once with Dr. Tracy Putnam, the best man for this kind of thing anywhere within range; in fact, even before talking to me, he and Johnson on their own responsibility had put in a call for Putnam. The next half hour passed in a grinding crisscross of calls. I talked to Traeger, I called Deerfield back, I got in touch with Frances who was out in Madison, I reached Putnam, I consulted Traeger once more, and by half-past four I was at 168th Street, waiting in Putnam's office. We picked Frances up in New Haven and, driving hard through greasy rain on an ugly, gritty night, with the windshield smeared all the time by fog and thick penetrating mist, reached Deerfield at about ten. Putnam said little as we drove, with our hearts dropping out of us. Five minutes after I got there I knew Johnny was going to die.

I cannot explain this except by saying that I saw it on the faces of the three doctors, particularly Hahn's. I never met this good doctor again, but I will never forget the way he kept his face averted while he talked, then another glimpse of his blank averted face as he said goodbye, dark with all that he was sparing us, all that he knew would happen to Johnny, and that I didn't know and Frances didn't know and that neither of us should know for as long as possible.


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