Teresa McGovern: A death in the cold

February 5, 1995

Editor’s note: This article was first printed in the Washington Post’s Style section on Feb. 5, 1995.

Cold, it was so cold.

"Hey," a man cried, opening the back door of his print shop. "There's a little kid, passed out in the snow."

Another man tramped into the alley, where a small body in a black ski jacket lay under an awning of icicles.

"It's not a kid," he called. It was a woman, curled up, her hands tucked under her chin.

He touched her neck. "And I don't think she's passed out."

He felt her hands. "Call 911."

The fingers were frozen hard. Her skin was colorless. Her socks had iced onto her feet. She lay next to a circle of footprints, a ring 10 feet in diameter, her own sneakered prints tamped down upon each other, as if she had been trying to walk straight but could only make dizzy circles until she dropped.

It was just after noon on Dec. 13, raw and overcast in Madison, Wis. In the minutes it took for the emergency crew to arrive, the printer, a bearded man who protested against the war in the sixties and still publishes lefty pamphlets, knelt and covered the body with his coat.

There's something about this woman, he thought. She had a delicate, poetic face. There was a refinement to her, the dangling earrings, the russet hair smoothed into a barrette.

She had no purse, no ID; she had fallen among garbage cans and dead sunflowers. Still, he was certain: This woman had a home.

It took till almost midnight to find that home. At 11:30 p.m., a police officer and a chaplain walked up the brick path to a large Colonial house in Northwest Washington.

The doorbell startled George McGovern. He was in the living room, leafing through an issue of Harper's. George and his wife, Eleanor, had returned a few hours before from a restaurant where, over the years, they celebrated good news with their five children. Eleanor had just gone up to bed.

Through the glass, by the light of the entrance hall, McGovern could see two men, and before he opened the door, he suspected two things — they had come about Terry and the news was bad.

Senator, we are so sorry. Your daughter Teresa is dead. Last night she wandered into a dark alley and fell into a snowbank. She was intoxicated. No one found her until noon today; there were no lights back there.

McGovern reeled back, stumbled into his dark study. He couldn't turn on the light, couldn't speak, couldn't cry. For 10 minutes, he wandered in circles around the room, the walls covered with political mementos: a McGovern for President poster, a Time cover from October '72, pictures of the senator with heads of state, a framed cable dated Nov. 8: You and Mrs. McGovern have our very best wishes for a well-deserved rest after what I know must have been a very strenuous and tiring campaign. Richard Nixon.

He had to tell Eleanor. But how? He forced himself to climb the stairs to their bedroom, a hand on the rail, gripped by a thought so cold it numbed him to his fingers:

In all his life, this was the moment of his greatest defeat.

In the photograph, they are holding hands, raised in triumph. George McGovern has just won New York's 1972 presidential primary, and Terry, then 23, stands beside him on the podium, glowing, her fingers steepled through his. Of all the children, Terry delivered the most fevered speeches on her father's behalf. In campaign appearances when the candidate was in another city or state, crowds would sometimes still chant: "We want McGovern!" They meant Teresa.

"She was the life of the party," an old friend says to George, recalling the '72 campaign.

"She was drinking even then," George says. "We didn't know. She would cover it up."

He is standing over his daughter's coffin. A veil and a single white rose cover Teresa's hands, where the frost had eaten her skin. George and Eleanor are greeting mourners at the wake.

"That face is unfamiliar to me," says Eleanor, looking down at Teresa. "Her forehead is so smooth."

Teresa's brow used to burn with emotion, sometimes laugh lines, sometimes anxious furrows. She was 45. She had two shiny-haired little girls. She had a famous father who always saved her the seat next to his. She had worked on Capitol Hill and in day care centers and in a hospice for terminally ill cancer patients. She was intelligent, funny, generous, charismatic, tender. She was a flop-down doorstep drunk.

That these elements can exist within the same person would not surprise anyone who understands the cunning, baffling pathology of alcoholism. George McGovern understood it, but he did not fully accept its finality, not until the night a cop and a clergyman rang his bell.

All his life, George McGovern has been a textbook liberal, either an idealist or a sap, depending on your politics. He believes that human beings are improvable, that good intentions translate into good policy. He believes it is possible to intervene to solve people's problems. He does not believe, did not believe, that at some level life is just a cold, lonely fight.

The events of 1972 shook McGovern badly. His landslide defeat was a personal and political repudiation, an election that seemed at all levels to represent the triumph of cynicism over compassion. The echoes of that defeat were so great they reverberate still; when Rep. Newt Gingrich recently fished for a term to describe the failed liberalism that in his view still poisons the people in the White House, he came up with "McGoverniks."

But in McGovern's historic loss, there was a certain dignity. The election was a genuine clash of ideologies, and it led to Watergate and the ultimate political comeuppance. If history has not vindicated McGovern, it has not savaged him either. After Gingrich's attack, McGovern wrote for The Washington Post an impassioned defense of his policies, a defense of the legacy of "McGoverniks." It was published the weekend after his daughter's burial.

At the wake, Teresa's children, Colleen, 7, and Marian, 9, threaded through the crowd of adults. They edged toward the casket, where a winged teddy bear lay next to the body. Throughout the evening the girls returned, giving Terry timid, darting looks, and rearranging the angel bear. In the end, they decided to cuddle the bear against their mother's neck.

Teresa's nickname was "Terry the Bear." Her father called her that as a child when he'd wake her with a tap on the nose. And later, when the drinking began, George characterized it as a conflict between the Bear and the Demon. He sent her many teddy bears and bear cards to encourage her. He saw things in terms of good and evil.

So did Teresa.

"She was a McGovernik and she was fiercely proud of it," a former campaign worker said in a eulogy the following day.

Hundreds of people turned out for the funeral in Washington. Afterward, McGovern stood in the doorway of the church and shook everyone's hand, offering quiet words, more a comforter than a mourner. He wore a blue suit and no overcoat. Still, he waited in the cold until the last person had gone, oblivious or perhaps indifferent to his own shivering.

“Good Things About Me: I have a very caring heart.

● When not drinking, I am a creative and loving mother.

● I am intuitive and perceptive.

● I believe that the political and social causes I've worked for have been humane.

● I go out of my way not to step on ants."

Teresa wrote this list while in treatment at a detoxification center in Madison. The page is still there, with her clothes and other belongings.

She was right; she was sensitive. She had a profound sense of what people were thinking all the time. Even at the detox center, while her body jittered from withdrawal, she would limp out of bed to soothe her roommate, or pad down the hall in a robe to bring her orange juice. In group therapy she liked to comfort others, rather than focus on her own troubles.

Her warmth helped heal other alcoholics, even if she couldn't heal herself. One friend from detox, a man named Don, tells of the time he escaped from a treatment facility with a lunatic plan to run away to Bangkok. He called Terry from the platform at the Amtrak station. She had precisely 15 minutes to persuade him to come back to the facility.

Later, they celebrated his sobriety by spray-painting his initials on a rock along with his recovery date, 12/25/89. Christmas. Then Don sprayed TJM. Teresa Jane McGovern. He asked her, "What's the anniversary of your recovery?"

She smiled crookedly and said: "Just put a question mark."

The mystery of alcoholism — who survives, who succumbs — eludes even her doctor at detox, a specialist in addictive diseases. After a routine explanation about the biological basis of alcoholism, Brian Lochen shrugs and says, "You sometimes wonder if the pains of the world are just too much for some people."

Terry McGovern felt things. She noticed things. She noticed teeny bits of stuffing coming out of chairs, pulled at it and rolled it between hot, worried fingers as if all of life's anguish were in that fuzzball.

In the McGovern household, where reserved behavior was the norm, Teresa was mischievous, outspoken. The middle of five children, she was the clown, with the blondest hair and the biggest smile. She became a conduit for the family's feelings — a wire between parents, between siblings — through which emotions ran. She was the only person in the family who got through to George. George often seemed unreachable, distracted by politics. As a girl growing up in South Dakota, daughter of a rising congressman, she taped little notes to her father's door, petitioning time to talk; as a young woman, following the 1972 debacle, she phoned from college at the University of South Dakota, cheering him up with wisecracks.

I'm so proud of you! George once wrote to her in a card. For climbing on top of the addiction and for expressing honest emotion — With love, from a pal who doesn't always express enough emotion, Dad.

The battle for Terry began at age 13, when she drank a Colt 45 with a couple of friends. She stood on her head, for a bigger rush. Giggling, she did a cheerleading jump off a ledge but forgot to put her feet together. She landed on her back and chipped her tailbone.

For the rest of her life, the pattern held: a moment of soaring, a backbreaking crash.

When sober, she fell in love, had children, cherished them. She ate organic vegetables, avoided sugar, used baking soda toothpaste, went for brisk walks and took vitamins. When drunk, she woke up with strangers, tripped down stairs, dropped the phone mid-conversation and passed out, and landed in the hospital, her body purpled with bruises, with no sense of who had beaten her. In the last five years, she entered one detox center 76 times.

The past became the present, time froze at age 13. She'd talk about her siblings as if they were children, when they were, in fact, in their forties. Her sister Sue recalls how Terry once showed up at her house drunk, having gone AWOL from a treatment program. The difference was so stark, Terry's brother-in-law didn't recognize the woman with a strange, bright moistness in her eyes, slumped in his doorway. Terry began ranting about ancient grudges. Worried about traumatizing their own sons, Sue and her husband loaded Teresa onto a bus back home.

The family fought with Terry; the family fought over Terry. The children argued that her drinking was worsened by too much attention; the parents argued that it was worsened by too little. They loved her, still, deeply, and that made the arguments burn.

They each remember moments of her drunkenness: Sister Mary drove her against her will to the emergency room. Sister Sue cut up watermelon cubes and hand-fed them to her, when she could not feed herself. Sister Ann baby-sat for Terry at age 42, stroked her hair while she lay sprawled on their parents' couch, unconscious yet whimpering, unaware that Ann, too, was crying.

She drank vodka. Randy, a friend from detox, recalls how Terry paid for vodka when she could, and how, when she couldn't, she guzzled it in the liquor store bathroom, refilling the bottle with water. She drank cooking wine and vanilla extract. She drank in the hospital with IVs in her arm. She drank in the park in the summer, in the public library in the winter.

She rented apartments and couldn't keep up with the rent, lived with friends, lived on the streets.

There were long periods of sobriety, once for seven years when she moved to Madison to live near her sister Sue. There were short periods of sobriety, such as during the summer of 1993.

With Teresa's belongings is a datebook from that year.

"LAST DRINK," Terry printed on Aug. 25. The next day: "FIRST DAY SOBER." Each day after that, in alternating colors -- navy, light blue, pink, yellow -- she drew a fat, proud Magic Marker X through the space. Each space, she inked up with appointments: dietitian, shoes returned, call insurance, buy oatmeal nuts, get glasses, Marian play, sent Jimmy essay. Until Sept. 14, when the X's stop.

"Relapse," she scribbled in light pencil.

And on the 15th: "crying."

Then the spaces go blank.

As the months passed, her stomach swelled, the veins in her esophagus dilated, and she was throwing up blood. By summertime last year, she acknowledged to a sister: "My body no longer wants or recognizes anything as food but alcohol."

A week before her death, the police found Terry asleep in a snowdrift. She arrived in the examination room, soaked and terrified, curled in a ball. An orderly went in to visit her, dropped to the floor, and said: "What are you doing? Why are you doing this?"

Terry hugged her knees, rocking cold under a blanket. She said what she always said: "I don't know. I don't know."

In the spitting, cursing, dark halls of detox, where alarms blare if patients break the laser beams across their doors, where the cinder block walls are covered with squares of foam so patients don't crack their heads, Terry was something of an oddity. She believed she would get well. She was sweet and articulate. She read books and used Estee Lauder blush.

There was another difference with Terry: She was one of the only patients who still had people on the outside who cared. Her father was always sending her roses. When the roses withered, she wound them around her headband, smiling: "They love me, they do."

In October, while Terry was cutting out paper goblins to give to her girls for Halloween, a talkative patient named Jeff asked someone: "Who's that ladylike one?"

"George McGovern's daughter."

This stunned Jeff. For the rest of the day, he was quiet. That night, alone in his room, he lay face down on his pillow and thought about what it meant. He thought about Teresa, the classy lady who wore angora sweaters. He thought about his room, empty except for a metal nightstand and a cot with leather restraints. He thought about George McGovern, who he believes was the last decent man in American politics. He thought about his own sick life, about the country, about the future, about the chemical smell of the cold gray floor, and he pushed his face hard into the pillow so no one would hear him cry.

The second week in November, a letter addressed to Eleanor

McGovern arrived in Washington:

"Dear Mother,

". . . I truly cannot believe I've let myself stay sick for so long. . . . I wonder if I can ever really have a full life knowing my children and I have lost precious time and not knowing what time I will be allowed now.

"I'm so sad mom. Please pray for Marian, Colleen and I to be reunited. I want to be a daughter to you and Dad — not a source of worry, anger and sorrow. I want to be a sister to my brother and sisters. ... I love you — Teresa"

There had been letters from Teresa over the years — sometimes upbeat, sometimes penitent, sometimes filled with promises or plans both realistic and fantastic. But there was something different about this letter. It seemed so hopeless. It seemed like resignation.

The McGoverns wanted to react decisively, to rush to Teresa, but they did not. Since the summer they had distanced themselves from their daughter, in a desperate tactic to force her to confront the depth of her addiction.

It was, altogether, a week of dispiriting news. Tuesday was Election Day. A bad Election Day. To George McGovern, it was as if something cold and pitiless had passed overhead.

I can numb the pain, says a voice.

"It doesn't sound like an evil voice. It sounds like a friend, telling you the truth."

Teresa's younger brother, Steven McGovern, is describing the voice of alcohol, as it whispers to you when you are feeling tense or dissatisfied or empty: Here's your old pal, I can get you through this.

"I have experience with this," he explains.

Like Teresa, Steven has struggled for years with addiction. He has weary wrists and the wise, bombed eyes of a veteran. He talks about it, gentle and slow. He sits in his father's study, where a chair seam leaks bits of white stuffing.

"My sister, I love, is dead from this disease."

The catechism of recovering alcoholics is that they suffer from a disease, not moral frailty. But it is more complicated than that. It is true that alcoholism tends to run in families, and that all kinds of people become alcoholics, including brave people and strong people. And yet it is also true that you recover not through conventional medicine, but through what amounts to a colossal act of will. So if alcoholism is a disease, it is not simply a disease: It is, on some level, a terrible seduction.

"At first," says Steve, "it sounds like the solution to all your vague unnamed fears. Then the fog clears. And the voice is laughing at you."

Gotcha again.

"You're left standing alone, among the destruction. You realize it took 20 years of your life. You're sober, you feel itchy, shaky, your chest squeezes and it's hard to breathe. Your body is crying for it."

The night Steve heard of Terry's death, he lay in bed and smiled, and he talked to his sister:

Well, you're free now!

"I couldn't help feeling happy for her. We were celebrating together. We were laughing and hugging."

Bedtime is the worst time since her mother died. During the day, Colleen says, she can keep really busy. But lying in the bunk bed over her older sister Marian, 7-year-old Colleen stares at the ceiling and imagines what she'd say if she saw her mother again. She wrote it down in a notebook.

Colleen's QUESTIONS/COMMENTS

1. Are you happy where you are?

2. What is it like to be dead?

3. I am really missing you.

4. I wish you didn't die.

5. I still love you mommy.

6. Are you in peace?

Colleen already knows the answer to Question 1: "I think she's happier where she is."

Marian: "She doesn't have to worry about drinking anymore."

The sisters are wearing matching flannel nightgowns, sitting on either side of their father on the living room couch at their home in Madison. Raymond Frey, a social worker, met Terry when they worked together at a halfway house for the mentally ill. They never married but they lived as a family for four years, splitting up in 1988 when Terry resumed drinking. Not surprisingly, Frey got custody.

They are grown-up little girls, especially Marian, with the mature face of a child who has been forced to parent. She once crayoned Teresa a six-page pamphlet titled "Think Before You Drink."

Yet both girls are wary about adulthood. Marian told an aunt: "I don't want to get older cause I might be an alcoholic."

The relationship with their mother was complicated, a blend of tenderness, hurt and unfinished love. The day Teresa died, she had moved into an apartment 30 yards from their front door. She used to wander by sometimes and stare into the living room window. Teresa needed to be near Marian and Colleen. And they needed her too, except that they were also worried that neighborhood friends would see their mother weaving through the streets.

As Terry's condition declined, so did the frequency of her visits. Several times when Frey picked up the girls, he smelled liquor on their mother's breath. She offered what she could, dropping in on them at recess, bringing them gum and granola bars. She tried to help Marian with fourth-grade math, but she had lost some capacity for abstract thinking. A teacher lent Teresa a textbook to work on herself.

If nothing else, Terry called them after dinner several times a week. The phone would ring once, and the girls recognized the signal: Call Mom back at the pay phone at detox.

The morning of Dec. 14, Frey sat them down, said he had sad news and let them guess.

Marian winced: "Mom is drinking? Mom's in the hospital? Mom had an accident?" Colleen said nothing; she knew.

Tonight, several weeks after the funeral, life has almost resumed its routine. Frey cooks macaroni and cheese. The girls set the table, flowery plates for them, the ugly brown one with the stripe for Dad. Dinner is the usual bold mix of questions: "Daddy, why do girls have to take a boy's name, is it a law?" and "Do calculators have little pieces of brains inside?"

But when dinner ends, the mood shifts. No phone call from Mom.

A draft pierces the plastic wrap that covers the windows. Frey wears two shirts, a sweater, a windbreaker and a hat. Marian wears her mother's coat, the sleeves dangling. Colleen sucks her thumb, pulls a sheepskin rug over her legs. They snuggle next to their father and listen to a bedtime story:

"President Lincoln had his birthday in February too," reads Frey. "And Caddie wished more than ever that she had been a boy. Perhaps she could have grown up to be a president. ..."

Colleen interrupts in a querulous voice: "Who wants to be president anyway?"

"A lot of people do," says Frey.

She crunches her eyebrows: "This is what happens to presidents."

She aims a finger at her father and pulls the trigger.

If he had become president, McGovern says, things might

have turned out differently.

"It might have saved her life. Terry would have played some role."

She could have been a college dean, he says, or a congresswoman. "She was a born advocate," McGovern says.

Today is one of his first days back at work as president of the Middle East Policy Council. For weeks, he has moved around in a haze, losing things, forgetting appointments, drifting through the house in the middle of the night, looking at her picture, murmuring a few words. So much of his life had been consumed by Terry and her needs. It is taking time to reorient.

He fixes a cup of Folger's Coffee for One, the kind he used to bring Terry at her treatment programs.

He sits in an armchair, his usual straight-backed pose. He speaks openly about regrets, about his guilt over being so preoccupied with his career when Terry was young. He urges current members of Congress to spend more time with their kids. A familiar theme: how he could have made a difference.

When Terry was arrested in 1968 on marijuana possession charges while canvassing for his Senate reelection campaign, he saw in the crisis an opportunity to make a difference not only with Terry but with the rest of America. He told Eleanor: "If the country is so mixed up that even our daughter is playing with drugs, maybe I ought to run."

Today, he says: "My whole life's been gambled on the thesis that through education and information and political action you can change things for the better. I know people are disappointed with the pace, but if it weren't for these struggles, people would still be eating each other. Duels would be fought out on Connecticut Avenue."

McGovern has blown up six photographs of him and Terry, and placed them side by side around the office.

"I'm not sure I ever accepted that I was powerless," he says. All the letters, treatment plans, pep talks, hugs and roses, and in the end, all it amounted to was a final heap of red roses on her coffin.

"It's difficult to concede," McGovern says. But now, half-slid down in his chair, the arms barely hold him up.

This untitled poem by Teresa McGovern was found with her

papers. It is written in pen, on loose-leaf, and is undated:

The man sits.

He is contemplating a time when he was stronger.

when youth was longer

and he had the will to fight.

when he had the time to be right

and the power of right.

Through his life

he has dreamt the dream of peace

The hope that war will finally cease

And the prayer of new found goals

to find love in our souls.

Ah, but there's no room for a gentle man

Not in this world, where dreams are banned

No room for honor in this land . . .

He was rebuked

he was told `go'

He left in anguish saying `God, forgive you.'

`Forgive you for your untruths.'

And they laughed as they walked into Hell

They laughed and they jeered as they fell

Unaware of their pain

Unaware of the grieving rain

Unaware of their piercing shame.

The man sits.

The empty world is shaking, bleeding

His heart is breaking

His tired mind is aching.

I hear the loyal crying

Oh pity, world, you're dying.

"Oh, Dad, things could be worse. I could have lost my life."

It was the night of Dec. 11, and Terry was talking to her father from the pay phone at detox. While drunk the previous week, she had lost her purse with $600, the security deposit for a new apartment.

Eleanor had mailed her another check. In the morning, after her release, Terry would pick it up at her friend Ernie's house.

If she could just stick to logistics. Tomorrow she would have a home, a place where Marian and Colleen could visit, and a crisp, new life. She would be responsible. She would be sober. She would be organized.

List of things to do: 1. pick up check 2. tell bank about check 3. landlord rent. 4. call ernie 5. call kate 6. call police re purse 7. library 8. call art

She told her father about the plan. What she didn't tell him, though, was that the folks at detox were so alarmed by her recent binges, they were about to involuntarily commit her to a 90-day, locked-facility treatment program. Securing this apartment, she believed, was her last hope to avoid the commitment papers.

The next morning, scared and elated, she told her drinking buddy, Randy, as she boarded the bus at detox to town: "I hope I can make it this time."

And she did make it, all that sunny morning and afternoon. She went to Ernie's and, hands cupped around a hot mug of coffee, discussed plans to build the girls a doll house. She brought an air mattress and a blanket to the new place, so she could spend her first night. She got a new driver's license, fretted that she had forgotten to wear lipstick for the photo. She helped a man on crutches hobble across the ice chunks in a parking lot. She met with her landlord, himself a recovering alcoholic; flipped through her family albums with him. When the landlord was about to leave, she rested her hands on his shoulders and said, "You know, you remind me of my father."

It was 5:30 p.m. and already she had crossed off Items 1 through 6 on her list. But in the evening an icy fog crawled over Madison. The temperature dropped to 16 degrees. And Terry began to drink.

No one is sure where she went for the next three hours. But at 8:30 p.m., she walked in through the back door of a stranger's house on Williamson Street, a five-minute walk from her apartment.

"Can we help you?"

The woman who lives there stared at the dazed, wet woman, sliding along the hall into the living room, snow on her fingers, water dripping onto the floor.

"Is there something wrong?"

Teresa couldn't speak. She stood there and smiled glazedly at the woman's two children, who were lying on the couch.

"Get upstairs!" the woman told her kids. She wasn't exactly afraid; after all, this person was well dressed and had a gentle face. Maybe she'd been in a car accident or had gone into insulin shock.

The woman called the police, but Teresa floated out the front door minutes before they arrived. She turned the corner into an alley behind the print shop. She was wearing a gray sweat shirt her father had given her. In her pocket she had five dollar bills and the key to her new home.

She dropped her scarf in a tire tread and lurched 10 more feet. She circled. She staggered. And finally she sank down in seven inches of snow.

The snow cooled her skin, sent shivers through her. After a while, if she felt anything at all, she felt warm. That is how it happens. Her heart sped up, trying to generate heat. That is how it happens too. A final, desperate rush of blood to the skin. The heat melted the snow around her, all the way down to the grass. But soon her heartbeat grew faint, and then it stopped. She was just one body and there was too much snow, only so much warmth fighting so much cold.

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