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Empty Arms

Empty Arms

If you were paying attention to the poignant and perfect state funeral for President George H.W. Bush yesterday you were aware that he lived most of his adult life with the sort of grief most of us find unimaginable.

The loss of a child.


The second oldest of the Bush’s six children was born in 1949 and died of leukemia - at a time when that diagnosis was a death sentence - in 1953, just two months shy of her fourth birthday.

Her full name was Pauline Robinson Bush. But the family never called her anything but Robin.

The couple went on to have four more children, yet the little girl that died was always part of their family. 

The empty chair at every meal, the empty bed every night.

In his eulogy for his father, President George W. Bush said, “None of his disappointments could compare with one of life’s greatest tragedies, the loss of a young child. Jeb and I were too young to remember the pain and agony he and Mom felt when our 3-year-old sister died. We only learned later that Dad, a man of quiet faith, prayed for her daily.”

I’m not surprised. My grandmother never forgot the son she buried when he was just six months old. 

“Jackie would be five today,” she reminded her daughters every year on his birthday. Six, seven, eight…

She never forgot. She talked about him often and easily. Jackie Ennis was not a taboo subject in my grandmother’s house even though she didn’t have a single picture of him.

“Jackie would be 40 today,” she once told me, with a look of sadness that puzzled this teenager, but which I understood when I had babies of my own. 

In a profile of the late president this weekend, The Washington Post noted that the passing of Robin hung heavy over the Bush family for decades.

“Her parents considered her death the greatest sorrow they ever experienced,” wrote the Post’s Karen Tumulty.

“There was about her a certain softness,” Mr. Bush wrote to his mother. “Her peace made me feel strong, and so very important. . . . 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.”

While the Bushes kept Robin close, the rest of the country had mostly forgotten that there was a sibling who died way too young.

We were reminded of the tragedy when the former First Lady died last April and the editorial cartoonist for the Jackson, Mississippi’s Clarion-Ledger penned an image - I can’t bring myself to call it a cartoon - of a beaming Barbara Bush, sporting her signature pearls, dashing into heaven arms outstretched to a little blond angel.



After the death of 41 on Friday, cartoonist Marshall Ramsey did it again. This time he drew the president, Barbara and Robin holding hands. It appeared the patriarch had arrived in the afterlife by a World War II plane.

“We waited for you.” 

To atheists and agnostics these images must seem simplistic, corny or childish.  

But to those of us who have faith in God, the belief that keeps us going after we’re separated by death is that we will see our loved ones again.

I pray that some version of Mr. Ramsey’s drawing actually occurred on Friday when the Good Lord called George H.W. Bush home and reunited him with the little girl he lost and the woman he loved.

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