In the wee hours of Tuesday, June 11, 1940, I was awakened by the ringing of the ship’s bells. I tiptoed to open the door of our cabin and to my amazement saw people in pajamas and nightgowns with life-preservers around their waists, rushing toward the deck. I immediately woke my sister, Louloute (pronounced “Loo-lute”). The two Russian ladies who shared our cabin went to find out what was happening. They returned with upsetting news. Our vessel, the SS Washington, had been intercepted by a German U-boat. We had been given one hour to board our lifeboats and put out to sea. Our ship would then be torpedoed.
Louloute and I hastily donned our summer dresses (it is strange what the mind recalls, but I remember that mine was navy blue with polka dots), grabbed our pocketbooks, and left the cabin. It is also extraordinary that at a time of such anxiety, I was very observant and had noticed already on the day we boarded the Washington that in case of an emergency, we were supposed to go to Lifeboat 10. There was enormous tension. People were pushing and pressing up the narrow staircase, and my one fear was to be separated from my beloved sister, for at that moment she was everything to me. I locked my arm in hers and was mainly concerned about her welfare, as she easily got upset. I even tried a bit of humor. “I have forgotten my toothbrush,” I quipped.
When we arrived on deck, we discovered that Lifeboat 10 was filled to capacity. The captain had issued orders that only women and children could board the boats, as there were far more passengers than lifeboats. But there were some men in the lifeboats that had ignored the order because their wives insisted they accompany them.
We found ourselves on deck, looking out onto the mysterious, fog-covered Atlantic. I was convinced I was about to die and that soon I would be facing God. It was then that I had one of the most extraordinary experiences of my life. With a clarity and precision that approached the supernatural, all of a sudden, in a single flash, I relived everything I had ever done, failed to do, thought, imagined, and felt. The experience was overwhelming, and convinced me of God’s goodness. Could I not assume that, at the very moment of death, God would grant this experience to everyone, so that each person would have the chance to say, “Have mercy on me, my Lord”? This experience had such an impact on me that I believe I went from youth to maturity in a few brief instants. I had the clear sense that I had “touched eternity,” where time vanishes and everything is present.
As we will see, I survived this brush with death, but my instantaneous maturing was a grace that prepared me for what lay ahead. Had someone told me that I would spend most of my life in the United States, and earn my living teaching philosophy at a secular university, where I would suffer nearly four decades of endless efforts to undermine and deter my teaching, my response would have been one of total disbelief coupled with dread. Nothing in my sheltered background had prepared me for this.
But as I look back on my life of nine decades, I see the providence of God in everything. Not only did He sustain me with His grace, He gave me the great gift of many beautiful friendships and above all my marriage to Dietrich von Hildebrand, that knight for truth and ardent lover of the Church. My years as a professor of philosophy were at times harrowing and difficult, but thanks to the deep sense of mission I felt toward my students, I was able to find joy and serenity even in the darkest times.
There comes a moment when a story like mine must be told. Indeed, it is a necessary act of gratitude. My life has been like a novel, sometimes with a Dostoevsky note, when I consider the cast of characters.