Last Friday evening, in a phone call shortly before he died, former president George H.W. Bush said goodbye — and “I love you, too” — to his eldest son, former president George W. Bush.
The elder Bush then passed peacefully at 10:10 p.m. Texas time. Thirty-eight minutes later, Jim McGrath, his longtime spokesman, announced the news via Twitter.
In the annals of How Things Change, this is not how things went down in 1826 upon the death of John Adams, the only other father in American history whose son also became president.
No, not even close.
Back then, the elder Adams, who died at 90, was buried before his son John Quincy Adams — then president — even knew about his death.
How that happened is primarily a story of technology.
For one thing, news then traveled considerably slower than a tweet. For another, there was no embalming or refrigeration, which probably meant — sadly and somewhat grossly — that the body of the country’s second president could not wait long for the arrival of the sixth.
And so three days after Adams died on, of all days, July Fourth — incredibly, Thomas Jefferson died the same day — pastor Peter Whitney presided over his funeral in Quincy, Mass., a quick horseback ride from Boston.
“He died in good old age, full of days,” Whitney said. “And honor.”
The elder Adams had not been present a year earlier when his son took office. His health was already declining.
And yet, knowing his son had attained the highest office in the land seemed to brighten his otherwise dreary outlook and enliven his frail self.
Benjamin Waterhouse, a physician and Adams’s old friend, wrote a letter to the president saying, “I really believe that your father’s revival is mainly owing to the demonstration that his son has not served an ungrateful republic.”
Adams, his friend also reported, was eating like a champ and even smoking cigars.
That fall, the president went to visit his father.
“Probably they both knew it was the last time they would spend with one another,” wrote historian David McCullough in his best-selling biography of the second president, “and possibly they reviewed the will Adams had drawn up some years before,” in which he left his son, among other things, 103 acres of land and a French writing desk.
But next spring, according to McCullough, Waterhouse told the president that his father “appeared to me much nearer to the bottom of the hill.”
Adams died a few months later, just hours after Jefferson.
Meanwhile, in Washington, his son had no idea.
On July 9, according to McCullough, the president got word that his father was gravely ill. He headed north. The next day, the National Gazette in Philadelphia reported that the president had passed through the city “on his way to the late residence of his deceased father.”
“Having heard,” the paper reported, “of the increasing illness of the latter, he immediately set out, in order, if possible, to receive his last breath. Before he arrived at Baltimore, he met the melancholy tidings of the day, and there saw a newspaper containing the Boston account.”
The president pressed north by steamboat, his father already at rest next to his mother and former first lady Abigail.
On July 13 — more than a week after his father died — John Quincy Adams finally reached his home.
“Everything about the house is the same,” the president wrote in his diary. “I was not fully sensible of the change till I entered his bedchamber.”
The moment “struck me as if it had been an arrow to my heart,” he wrote. “My father and mother have departed.”
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