The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

‘One last time’: Barbara Bush had already faced a death more painful than her own

Barbara Pierce, the future Barbara Bush, is shown in her graduation photo from a finishing school in Charleston, S.C., in 1943. (AP)

Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday, said she didn’t fear death. That may be because the 92-year-old former first lady faced it before, in the hardest way imaginable.

In 1953, soon after George H.W. Bush had moved his family to Midland, Tex., to get into the oil business, the couple’s 3-year-old daughter complained about feeling tired. Usually, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush, the much-doted-on only girl of the Bush kids, was as rowdy and healthy as her older brother George W. and baby brother Jeb. Barbara decided to take her to a pediatrician.

Her diagnosis was shockingly abrupt. The doctor called the Bushes a few days later with a word neither had ever heard before: leukemia. The complaint had been fatigue; the prescription was to take their child home to die.

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“Her advice was to tell no one, go home, forget that Robin was sick, make her as comfortable as we could, love her — and let her gently slip away,” Bush wrote in her 1994 memoir. “She said this would happen very quickly.”

But the Bushes had means and determination, and they fought the death-sentence diagnosis, beginning a months-long ordeal that would have lifelong impacts on a family that would come to include two presidents.

USA Today reporter Susan Page, who is writing a new biography of Barbara Bush, spoke to the former first lady about the episode last fall, 64 years to the month after Robin’s death. Sitting in her Houston living room, facing a portrait of her forever-young daughter, the tears were fresh.

“I think this was a very powerful tragedy in their lives,” Page said. “No mother would ever forget a child, but Robin has remained a real presence for them.”

The day after getting the bad news, the Bushes flew with Robin to New York, moving into the apartment of George H.W. Bush’s grandparents on Manhattan’s East Side. His uncle was a doctor at Sloan Kettering, a leading cancer center even when cancer was barely understood and nearly taboo to mention.

Robin stayed in the hospital for seven months, having regular bone marrow tests and blood transfusions, which drove her father from the room while her mother remained resolutely at her side. On one quick outing to Maine, Robin finally saw her two brothers, whose pictures were taped to her hospital headboard but who had no idea their sister’s life was ebbing away.

In October, Robin died with her parents in the room. “For one last time I combed her hair and held our precious little girl,” Barbara wrote.

They gave the little body that had been claimed by a mysterious disease over to medical research, then had their daughter buried in a family plot in Greenwich, Conn.

Back in Texas, George W. Bush has recounted the day his returning parents came to pick him up at school in their big green Oldsmobile. He recalled his delight at the prospect of seeing his baby sister.

“I remember seeing them pull up and thinking I saw my little sister in the back of the car. I remember that as sure as I’m sitting here,” he told The Washington Post in a 1999 interview. “I run over to the car, and there’s no Robin.”

Barbara Bush described the death of her daughter and the grief that followed as an agony made more bearable by her relationship with her husband.  Later, she would marvel that the tragedy that splits many couples had brought them closer.

“In this case, it tested the marriage and made it stronger,” Page said.

George W. has said Robin’s death forged a bond with his mother that he leaned on through his father’s presidency and then his own. Each felt responsible for shoring up the other.

In a Post profile about that mother-son relationship in 1999, Barbara Bush described the moment she realized young George was bucking her up.

One day … she heard her son tell a friend that he couldn’t come out because he had to play with his mother, who was lonely. “I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m being there for him,’ ” she recalled. “But the truth was he was being there for me.”

“That started my cure,” she wrote in her memoir. “I realized I was too much of a burden for a little 7-year-old boy to carry.”

It was during this period, at age 28, that Barbara’s dark hair began to go white giving her the gray coiffure that would become known to the world. But the Bushes thrived. They had three more children, including another girl, Dorothy. The family rose from mere prominence to true dynasty, with portraits hanging on official walls in Washington, Texas and Florida. George H.W. and George W. were the first father-and-son presidents since John and John Quincy Adams.

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But one portrait remained on more private walls.

“It hangs within clear view of her chair,” Page said of the rendering of Robin that kept Barbara company in the Bush’s Houston living room.

After the George H.W. Bush Library was established in College Station, Tex., the family had Robin’s body moved to a small, gated burial plot on the grounds. On Saturday, after Barbara Bush’s funeral at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, she will join her daughter there.

Barbara Bush, who was the wife of one president and the mother of another, died on April 17. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post)

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