December 9, 2018
Remembering a president known for his kindness
Like millions of my fellow Americans, this week I have been touched by the respectful tributes paid to the late President George H. W. Bush. Late Thursday afternoon the 41st president of our nation was buried near his wife Barbara and his daughter Robin at Bush’s presidential library in College Station, Texas.
In a society burdened by a severe lack of civility in the public square, it is encouraging to witness people of different persuasions honoring the distinguished career of a Republican president. But I must admit that what touched me the most was what I learned about George and Barbara’s struggle with the death of their daughter Robin who died of leukemia at age 3 in 1953.
Anyone familiar with the history of leukemia knows that in 1953 the primary treatment of the disease was blood transfusions. While new blood could not cure leukemia, it did prolong life. But it is well-nigh impossible to explain to a three-year-old child why such painful transfusions are necessary. Little wonder then that Barbara Bush once said about George, “Every time Robin got a blood transfusion, he’d have to leave the room.”
I know how George, and Barbara, felt. That same helplessness was mine in the early fifties when our son David was dying with leukemia. And time after time, when I had to hold him down to prepare for a blood transfusion, he begged me, “Daddy, don’t let them stick me again!” I am still troubled by the fact that I made my son endure that pain while knowing full well that the transfusions would not save him.
We did not donate our son’s body to science. George and Barbara did. Barbara said, in an interview years later, "I think it made Gampy and me feel that something good is coming out of this precious little life." This idea was never suggested to us or Dean and I might have made that same decision. Our doctor did encourage us to hope and pray that medical research would one day lead to a cure for leukemia. Today we are thankful that fewer children are dying with leukemia because of the progress made by medical science.
Barbara’s words about her daughter reminded me of the way we felt about David in the days of his illness and suffering. She said tenderly, in a 1912 interview, "Robin to me is a joy. She's like an angel to me and she's not a sadness or a sorrow, those little fat arms around my neck."
A few years after Robin’s death, George wrote a touching letter to his mother describing how his family felt about the loss of Robin’s presence. He referred to her as a “Christmas angel” since she had been born a few days before Christmas. These are some of his words in that letter:
"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 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."
Barbara once said that when George dies, Robin will be “the one he’ll see first” when he gets to heaven. Since Barbara died first, eight months ago, I like to think that Robin and Barbara greeted George together!
The loss of a child can cause a person to become bitter or better. Clearly George and Barbara were made better, and not bitter, by this tragedy. George will be remembered for many things as historians analyze his long career of service to his country. One of the remarkable attributes of his character that cannot be ignored was his kindness. He was a gentleman of the first order. He practiced kindness and encouraged it. It was his kindness that prompted him to bless our nation with the beautiful idea of “a thousand points of light.” Bush reminded us that good deeds begin with kindness toward others, and when spread like stars across our nation, “will help America move forward.”
Historians may question some of his decisions that affected our nation and the world. But, if they are honest, they will agree that George H. W. Bush was one of the kindest men ever to occupy the Oval Office. And it may well be that the loss of his precious daughter tempered his spirit in ways that brought forth a kinder and gentler man whom God used to bless our nation.
May we not learn from the impact of a little girl’s death upon her parents that God, who did not will the death of Robin, is ready to use the tragic elements of our lives to make us better people whose kindness can make a difference in our world? There can be but one answer: YES, we can, and we must! + + +