June 2, 1988
Echoes tumbled through the ambulance. Squeals, rattles, and torsion-bar
sways came at him in waves, magnified and ominous. The attendants standing
over him seemed blurry, even extraneous. What mattered was the beeping
monitor and all-too-familiar stench of emergency medicine. And every
single sensation blended with the mundane smell of the rain-soaked streets
Benjamin Franklin Smith, my great-grandfather, knew he was about to die.
The morning had delivered Ben's third heart attack in six years--worse
than either of its predecessors. This time his chest felt vise-tight, more
constricted than he'd imagined possible. His blood-starved muscles sagged
like spent rubber, so weak he could barely feel them twitch, while a cold
Novocain-like river prickled his left arm from shoulder blade to
fingertips: numb but so heavy.
Oh, Christ! he thought, remembering his first seizure on that flight to
Phoenix in 1982. He should have known better. If he hadn't stayed on the
damn airplane, they could've given him treatment; minimized the damage.
Now he was dying. Him, of all people. Ben snorted. Absent his pain and
fear, it might have been a laugh. Well, why in hell not him? He was
sixty-three years old.
God, just sixty-three? Is that all I get? Please Jesus, spare me this. Not
Two ambulance attendants wheeled Ben through the hospital emergency
entrance, past check-in and dozens of less critical cases, sprinting
straight for intensive care. All ignored them except one nurse who,
recognizing the too-familiar patient, merely gaped. One of the attendants
whispered to her, "Looks like myocardial infarction. Probably massive."
Still half conscious, Ben wondered if they realized he could hear them, or
if they cared. He wondered whether these professionals tasted the same
empathy for him that he had so often experienced with his own dying
He also questioned his rationality.
His preparations over the previous half decade had included an oath to
himself that he would betray no ambivalence about the unusual instructions
he'd left. This despite understanding that his chances of staving off
death remained slight.
And that if he succeeded, he might end up envying the dead.
Before surrendering consciousness, Dr. Benjamin Smith managed to whisper:
"Call Toby Fiske." These words would set in motion all his
plans--irrevocably changing the nature of his death. Then the rush of
unreality gathered speed, and as his awareness faded, his subconscious
mind began to play back the most important moments of life, as if by
giving these experiences a new orderliness, he might somehow absolve
himself of, or at least comprehend, his mistakes.
Images assaulted him of his parents, his children, and the first time he
ever made love to his wife Marge. She was just a teenager then. How fiery
and resilient she was. They were. Then he remembered sitting at her
bedside when she was dying. For six weeks he had fed and bathed her,
consoled her with stories and recollections, held her hand, and watched
helplessly as the cancer consumed her body and mind.
Now would he finally rejoin her?
Ben Smith also knew the world would keep turning without him. So at the
end of things, he pleaded to his God, praying that once he was dead, his
only son might finally forgive him.
My great-grandfather was an only child. And despite his birth into
near-poverty, his genetics and early environment favored him with certain
critical advantages. But timing was not among these: He was born in 1925.
His attempt to become immortal is a tale of character, luck, and daring.
Benjamin Franklin Smith's story might have befallen any person of his
time--that era when death seemed inevitable to every human being on earth.
Inevitable, and drawing ever closer.
CHAPTER ONE: January 14, 1925
My great-great-grandmother stared into a spiderweb crack spreading through
the dilapidated ceiling paint, its latticed shape taunting her as if she
were a fly ensnared in its grip. For several hours she'd been lying on
their bed, shivering and convulsing, in that drab and tiny apartment. Now
she felt a scream welling in her chest, like a tidal wave drawing mass
from the shallows. Alice Smith was only twenty years old, but she knew
something was deeply, perhaps mortally, wrong.
She shut her eyes, trying to focus on something, anything, other than the
pain-fueled firestorm raging inside of her. But there was only the
tortured stench of her own sweltering flesh. A single tear found its way
into the corner of her mouth. It tasted of pain and fear, but she was
surprised to discover another flavor within it: hope and a coming of new
Her husband, Samuel, entered her consciousness as if to provide an outlet;
a cathartic conversion of pain to anger. Like Alice, the man was a
second-generation American. He was a grocer by trade, and, also like
herself, from Wakefield, Massachusetts. He had always been a hard worker
and steadfast in his tenderness. But he was not there! She was in agony,
while he was stacking cans of peaches!
Just when, she asked herself, had he judged his work more important than
his wife? and soundlessly cursed him with words women of the year 1925
weren't supposed to know.
Why did she need him there, anyway? To share her torment, or to seek the
comfort of him? All Alice knew was that right then she hated and loved her
husband in equal measure, and if this ordeal was to kill her, she needed
to see his face one last time.
To say goodbye.
No! she decided, as if her circumstance had been caused by nothing more
than a failure of will. She had to raise and love this child. She would
not allow herself to die.
Alice's membranes had ruptured twenty-six hours ago, yet she had not given
birth. She'd once read that in prolonged labor, omnipresent bacteria
threatened to migrate inside, infecting both mother and child. Even the
hunched and hoary midwife, though ignorant of the danger in scientific
terms, seemed well aware of peril, per se; Alice could sense a fear of
disaster in the woman's every gesture.
Where in the hell was Sam?
Even in anguish, Alice understood this rage against her husband was
misplaced. It had somehow become a societal expectation that women should
bear children with stoic grace. And it was absurd. A keen student of
history, she knew that anesthetics had been used for many surgeries since
the 1850s, yet had found little acceptance in obstetrics, the pain of
childbirth considered by doctors to be a duty women were somehow meant to
Still, it could have been worse; Alice was equally aware that her odds had
improved. A hundred years earlier, doctors would often go straight from
performing autopsies to delivering babies, seldom even washing their
hands. No wonder it had been common back then for men to lose several
wives to complications of childbirth. At least now, sterilization was
practiced with some modicum of care.
Her nineteen-year-old sister, Charlotte, and the midwife stood at Alice's
bedside. The older woman's facial expression evinced kindly resignation,
as if to say, It's all we can do for you, dear, as she held a wet towel,
sponging Alice's forehead. Charlotte Franklin's intelligent eyes and
sanguine aspect seemed to magnify the midwife's aura of incompetence.
"Just breathe through it," said the midwife, who'd already told them that
the suffering and peril of delivery were "natural," God's punishment for
the sins of womankind. "It's in our Lord's hands now," she now added, as
if these words held some sort of reassurance.
Alice felt her mind shove aside the hopeless bromide.
"You'll be okay, Alice," Charlotte whispered nervously, gently massaging
her sister's shoulders. "You're doing fine."
"Quick now, fetch the boiling water for the gloves," the midwife ordered.
"Won't be much longer."
Alice screamed again, and Sam burst into the room. The snowstorm dripped
its offerings from his clothes onto the stained wooden floor. He shivered.
Thank God, Alice thought, her rage forgotten. Sam would see their child be
"Am I in time?" he asked stupidly.
His question went unanswered. "Head's about through. Now push, girl!" the
Alice pressed down. Slowly, painstakingly, Charlotte and the midwife
managed to extract a perfect baby boy.
Though bleeding heavily, Alice rallied a wan smile of optimism and hope,
qualities she intended to convey to her son, assuming she survived.
Charlotte cut the cord. The midwife spanked the infant's bottom. They
washed him with warm water. He wailed, but soon rested contentedly in his
mother's arms. His father gently stroked his back. The caresses, tentative
at first, easily progressed in loving confidence.
"Benjamin Franklin Smith," Sam declared, as if in the ritual of naming,
his wife's pain might be banished to memory.
The next few days would be difficult. Having barely survived the ordeal,
Alice sustained a dangerous postpartum infection of the uterus and tubes.
Her fever would reach 105 degrees, often consigning her to the mad hands
of delirium. She'd live through the illness, but not without loss: She
would never bear another child.
Excerpted from The First Immortal by James Halperin. . Excerpted by permission of Del Rey, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.