Jews Praying In The Synagogue on the Day of Atonement by Maurycy Gottlieb (Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
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Monday, June 25, 2018
George & Barbara Bush: A Great American Love Story Hardcover – June 1, 2018 by Ellie LeBlond Sosa (Author), Kelly Anne Chase (Author), President George W. Bush (Foreword) (Down East Books)
“My parents can’t get enough of each other. Their love has grown stronger with each passing year. They laugh at each other’s goofy jokes, hold hands when no one is around and generally look at each other like teenagers in love.” —Marvin Bush, 60, son of Barbara, 91, and George H.W. Bush, 92(Globe Photos/Zuma)
President George H.W. Bush lost the love of his life, former first lady Barbara Bush, when she died this past April 17. The couple was married for 73 years, experiencing more highs and lows that most pairs could count.
In the new book George & Barbara Bush: A Great American Love Story(Down East Books), the Bushes’ granddaughter Ellie LeBlond Sosashares photos and stories of this long love story. Read on for an excerpt from the book, where the Bushes learn the heart-wrenching leukemia diagnosis for their daughter Robin, who died in in 1953 at age 3.
Friends, Faith, and Family
Three-year-old Robin wasn’t acting like herself. Typically playful and fun, she was lethargic, withdrawn, and told her mom she was weighing the option of lying in bed all day. After a check-up and a few tests, the family pediatrician, Dr. Dorothy Wyvell, called Barbara and asked her to come back to the office, this time without Robin but with George.
In her office, Dr. Wyvell delivered the tragic news to the Bushes. Your daughter has leukemia, she said. Barbara and George, who were twenty- three and twenty-four at the time, had never heard of the disease. Well, let’s do something. What do we do? pressed George. The doctor told them that there was nothing they could do. There is no cure.
“[Dr. Wyvell] gave us the best advice anyone could have given, which of course we didn’t take,” remembered Barbara. “She said, ‘Number one, don’t tell anyone. Number two, don’t treat her. You should take her home, make life as easy as possible for her, and in three weeks’ time, she’ll be gone.’”
Refusing to accept those conditions, George and Barbara were on a plane with Robin the next day heading for Memorial Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York City. George’s uncle was a doctor there, and he said they could try a few experimental treatments, bone marrow tests, blood transfusions, and chemotherapy. The doctors couldn’t make any promises, but George and Barbara had to do something.
“I remember asking the doctor why this was happening to our little girl, this perfectly beautiful creature. And the doctor said, ‘You have to realize that every well person is a miracle. It takes billions of cells to make up a person. And all it takes is one cell to be bad to destroy a whole person.’ So I came to see that the people who are sitting around alive are the miracles.”
Barbara stayed by Robin’s bedside in New York City while friends took care of Jeb and George W. back home. George traveled back and forth between the hospital and Texas. Somewhere in the haze of the diagnosis and the hospital bed in New York, Barbara accepted that Robin’s life was out of her hands and placed in the able ones of the doctors and nurses. In this world, she was useless, but she could control her daughter’s emotions, her comfort, and she could shoo away any scary thoughts. She read to her, made her laugh, brushed her hair, and assured her that there was nothing to worry about. “I wouldn’t allow anybody to cry near her, so I’d have to say to [Dorothy] and [George], ‘you can’t come in the room if you’re going to cry.’” George couldn’t help his eyes filling with tears as he talked to his daughter or watched the process of the painful bone marrow tests. At Barbara’s wish, he stepped into the hall to compose himself.
Robin died on October 11, 1953.
All of the strength that Barbara had assembled crumbled all at once when she felt the sting of her daughter’s absence. The house in Texas was missing someone, and she fell asleep sobbing as George held her in their bed. “I fell totally apart and [George] took care of me. I cried every night,” she said. Many relationships break after losing a child. “It either pulls you closer together or not.” George and Barbara were patient with each other’s grief. For all the strength Barbara had while Robin was alive, George found for Barbara after Robin had died. “George didn’t let me retreat,” she said.
When George was at work, Barbara played with George W. and cared for Jeb, trying to outrun the sadness. She knew she had to learn to live with her grief when it started to affect her little boys. One day back in Midland, there was a knock at the door; one of George W.’s friends was asking him to play. “He said out the window, ‘I can’t come out and play, I have to play with my mother.’ That made me think I’m not doing this correctly,” said Barbara.
The Bushes trudged forward, carrying the weight of their loss. George tucked a gold medallion into his wallet inscribed with “For the Love of Robin.” Dorothy Bush had an oil painting commissioned of Robin. She’s angelic and smiling with a twinkle in her eye in her frilly pink dress. George and Barbara hung it over the mantle in their Midland living room, so that Robin’s memory would surround them as their family grew. Neil was born on January 22, 1955, and Marvin was born on October 22, 1956. The house was full of rowdy boys, train sets, makeshift forts, and cowboy hats.
Five years later, while on a business trip in New York City, George’s mind drifted to Robin:
I have jotted down some words about a subject dear to your heart and mine. It is fun to fool around and try in one form or another to express thoughts that suddenly come up from way down deep in one’s heart. Last night I went out on the town and on my way home—late—I said to myself, ‘You could well have gone to Greenwich tonight’ . . . this thought struck me out of the blue, but I felt no real sense of negligence. The part I like is to think of Robin as though she were a part, a living part, of our vital and energetic and wonderful family of men and Bar. Bar and I wonder how long this will go on. We hope we will feel this genuine closeness when we are 83 and 82. Wouldn’t it be exciting at that age to have a beautiful 3½ year-old daughter . . . she doesn’t grow up. Now she’s Neil’s age. Soon she’ll be Marvin’s—and beyond that she’ll be all alone, but with us, a vital living pleasurable part of our day-to-day life. I sometimes wonder whether it is fair to our boys and to our friends to ‘fly-high’ the portrait of Robin which I love so much; but here selfishness takes over because every time I sit at our table with candlelight, I somehow can’t help but glance at this picture you gave us and enjoy a renewed physical sensation of closeness to a loved one.
This letter . . . is kind of like a confessional . . . between you and me, a mother and her little boy—now not so little but still just as close, only when we are older, we hesitate to talk from our hearts quite as much.
There is about our house a need. The running, pulsating restlessness of the four boys as they struggle to learn and grow; the world embraces them . . . all this wonder needs a [counterpart]. We need some starched crisp frocks to go with all our torn-kneed blue jeans and helmets. We need some soft blond hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and rackets and thousand baseball cards. We need a cut-out star to play alone while the others battle to see who’s ‘family champ.’ We even need someone . . . who could sing the descant to ‘Alouette,’ while outside they scramble to catch the elusive ball aimed ever roofward, but usually thudding against the screens.
We need a legitimate Christmas angel—one who doesn’t have cuffs beneath the dress.
We need someone who is afraid of frogs.
We need someone to cry when I get mad—not argue.
We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum.
We need a girl.
We had one once—she’d fight and cry and play and make her way just like the rest. But there was about her a certain softness.
She was patient—her hugs were just a little less wiggly.
Like them, she’d climb in to sleep with me, but somehow she’d fit.
She didn’t boot and flip and wake me up with pug nose and mischievous eyes a challenging quarter-inch from my sleeping face.
No—she’d stand beside our bed till I felt her there. Silently and comfortable, she’d put those precious, fragrant locks against my chest and fall asleep.
Her peace made me feel strong, and so very important.
‘My Daddy’ had a caress, a certain ownership which touched a slightly different spot than the ‘Hi Dad’ I love so much.
But she is still with us. We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her, and yet we can feel her.
We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.
By 1959, the four owners of Zapata decided to split into two separate companies and George took over the off-shore business, which operated in the Gulf of Mexico and eventually around the world. The new venture excited George—he would be on the water again. It also meant the family had to move. “We loved our life in Midland but there was one problem: Midland is nowhere near the Gulf of Mexico, where all our drilling rigs were operating. So a very pregnant Barbara, myself, and four boys packed up and moved to Houston,” recalled George.
On August 18, 1959, a girl was born into the Bush clan, Dorothy Walker Bush. She was sweet and small with brown locks. They would call her Doro.
For the next few years, the Bushes’ calendars were color-coded mosaics of school pickups, baseball games, birthday parties, and George’s departures and arrivals from business trips. “I spent half of the next ten years doing what every mother in America does: taxiing children to the doctor, the dentist, birthday parties, baseball games, tennis matches, and so on,” recalled Barbara.
Barbara became the disciplinarian, or as the children remember: The Enforcer. She set the ground rules and watched her kids closely as they grew. George and Barbara’s marriage revolved around the five children, so did their house—they had a pool as well as a full baseball diamond made in the backyard.
A rushed letter from Barbara to her family in October 1963 captures the essence of their days:
“We have Ray and Harry Hoagland here for lunch today and Helen Healy. Then at 3:00 Neil and Marty go to a birthday party and at 4:00 Dorothy to another. Doro is going as the darndest witch you’ve ever seen. Tuesday 18 little boys (counting my own 3) will be here for a fried chicken dinner. Marty’s 7th birthday. He is getting his first new bike–a 26 inch one. Very exciting. Wednesday night late we leave for the East and you all—Very exciting!”
In 2017, in Kennebunkport, their life and home again revolves around family. With marriages and births, the once small Bush family that fit inside a Midland home has expanded. Now there are great-grandkids to watch grow. Every flat surface of the turquoise living room is covered with framed family photographs. Each ordinary plastic frame faces the room for visitors to see.
Every summer, friends and family come to Maine to visit; George and Barbara take their repeated arrivals as indicators of success. “[George] thinks it’s a sense of humor that keeps us together, I don’t think so; I think it’s a love of family. I think his greatest accomplishment is . . . that our family comes up [to Maine] . . . [The children and grandchildren] are all a great example of what kept our marriage going. All the children coming up,” she said.