Good-Bye to Robin
Texas Monthly magazine published this interview with Barbara Bush in February 1988. My assignment was to keep Mrs. Bush talking solely about the 1953 death of her three-year-old daughter Robin. At the time of Robin's death, future president George W. Bush was six.
Mrs. Bush was stoic throughout our frank, poignant conversation.We drank a Bush family iced tea drink (with powdered Tang in it). Susan Porter Rose, Mrs. Bush's press secretary, stayed with us as we sat in the wicker porch furniture of the Vice Presidential residence. Rose taped the interview along with me and at one time wept openly and blew her nose. Mrs. Bush didn't shed a tear as she spoke, but she admitted to concerns that she hadn't handled young son George Jr.'s connection to his sister's death well. She kept him away from the hospital, abruptly delivered the sad news of his loss and basically didn't allow him to feel very much. This point has been picked up by several Bush family biographers.
Here's the introduction and the interview, published as a long-running quote:
Barbara Bush, the wife of Vice President George Bush, has five children: George Junior, 41; Jeb, 35; Neil, 33; Marvin, 31; and Dorothy, 28. Her first daughter, Robin, died of leukemia in 1953 at the age of 3. For seven months after the diagnosis, what had seemed a charmed life for the Bushes became a series of flights between an East Cost hospital and their home in Midland.
Today Mrs. Bush serves as the horary chairperson for the Leukemia Society of America and as the honorary national chairperson of Donor Awareness Week, volunteer work that is her way of extending Robin's short life.
"I had just gotten back from a trip with George when Robin woke up and said, 'I don't know what I'm going to do today. I'm either going to lie on the bed and look at books or rest outside and watch cars go by.' Robin was blond, with hazel eyes, and a very gentle little girl. It seemed wrong for her to be that exhausted‹she had been a normal three-year-old, and suddenly her schedule for the day was to lie down someplace. I decided to take her to the doctor. I wasn't observant enough to notice that she had some small bruises on her legs.
"The doctor in Midland examined her and did a blood test. Then she said, 'You better come on back this afternoon with George.' And I thought, 'With George?' That scared me a little bit. When we went back, she told us about leukemia. We'd never heard of it. George said, 'Well, let's do something. What do we do?' The doctor told us, 'You don't do anything.' Then she gave us the best advice anyone could have given, which of course we didn't take. 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.'
"George immediately dropped me home, went straight over to my friend Liz Fowler's house, and said, 'Liz, please go down and see Barbara. The doctor says Robin has leukemia.' So we broke the first rule before we got going. When he got home later that day, he called his uncle, who worked at Sloan-Kettering hospital in New York. We got Robin on the plane the next day and took her there. I had a history of getting airsick, but the first time we took Robin to New York, I got on and off the plane and didn't get sick. Robin needed me, and I wasn't thinking about myself. I haven't been airsick since.
"Every time we came home in that seven-month period, our friends in Midland rallied in the most extraordinary way. We asked them to give blood because we felt we had a moral obligation to replace the blood we used. They all gave. George started going by the Presbyterian church every morning on his way to work, and evidently there was a custodian there who knew what was happening, and George says he felt his presence there joining him in prayer. Things like that made an enormous difference.
"I wouldn't let George Junior play with Robin because she bruised so easily. In fact, I kept the kids apart almost the whole time. We thought he was too young to know, and actually I didn't want Robin to know. I was very firm at the time and, I suspect, rather tough. I made up my mind that she was going to be happy. If anybody cried in Robin's hospital room, I'd ask them gently to please leave the room. Poor George [Senior]. It just killed him. I'd have to say, 'If you cry, you can't stay.'
"Of course, she knew that she was sick. I read to her all day long, tickled her, and loved her. She was getting all the attention in the world, and she was young enough that she didn't really think ahead.
"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.
"George and I were with her the night she died. The next day we went out to Rye, New York, and played golf with my father. It was the first day we'd been out. We just got up and went out. Played gold. Didn't tell anyone. I later though that if people had seen us, they would have said, 'Why are those people doing that?' We just wanted to get away.
"We had a small family service in Greenwich, Connecticut, then we raced back to Texas two days later. George's mother and a friend of ours buried Robin next to George's father after we left.
"Both George and I felt this enormous physical pain for months afterward. I think you get that when anyone you love dies. Just this enormous physical pain. It felt like our hearts were breaking. We had both been around the hospital for so long that around eight months after her death, we decided to have checkups because we both thought we'd caught something. And of course we didn't have anything, thank heavens. But when you've been around sick people for so long and this pain is there, you being to think you might be physically ill. I hadn't cried at all when Robin was alive, but after she died, I felt I could cry forever. George had a much harder time when she was sick. He was just killing himself, while I was very strong. That's the way a good marriage works. Had I cried a lot, he wouldn't have. But then things reversed after she died. George seemed to accept it better.
"I must say, George Junior saved my life. I spent a lot of time playing with him and with Jebby after Robin's death, but I didn't really realized that George Junior was humoring me until I heard him tell a playmate that he couldn't come out today because he had to play with his mother, who was lonely. You have to remember that children grieve. At first George Junior couldn't believe she had died and was buried. He felt cheated. I'm not sure George and I handled that as well as we should have.
"I don't know if it's God or human nature, but a loss like that can make you think that what you have is better than what the next person has. For instance, I have a best friend whose child is severely retarded, and one day she said, You know, whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of Robin.' And I said, 'You know, whenever I feel sorry for myself, I think of you.' I couldn't have stood the pain of always worrying about Robin, wondering if her illness was always going to be a source of pain for her.
"Thirty-five years later it all looks sort of simple. We were lucky to have her for as long as we did. Robin's death strengthened our belief in God. 'Thy will be done.' And our belief in God strengthened us. So I've always felt that Robin was in the arms of God. She'll never have any of the worries the rest of us will have.
"I used to spend a quiet day every year on the anniversary of her death. I was so sanctimonious about it. But in recent years I've noticed that October eleventh goes by without my noticing it. I think that's good. Now it's easy.
"But each time the other children got sick, you can believe me, I was hanging over that crib more than any other mother. I was sure we would lose another child. You just don't know how valuable a child is until you lose one, and you don't know what a miracle it is when a child is born well."