On Dec. 5, 2018, thousands of people tuned in to television or internet channels to watch the funeral of former U.S. President George Herbert Walker Bush.
The 41st president died on Nov. 30, 2018, after losing his wife, Barbara, in April.
But there was someone else that the president lost more than 60 years earlier, someone that the Bushes loved dearly and never stopped mourning: their daughter Pauline, known as “Robin,” who died in 1953 at the age of 3 from leukemia.
At the time, cancer wasn’t widely understood.
In fact, it was considered a topic that was discouraged in conversation. For the Bushes, Robin’s diagnosis was devastating. It meant that there were very little treatment options — and she was going to die. Robin received blood transfusions in the hospital for seven months, but they were unsuccessful in treating her cancer.
The Bushes gave themselves one rule: They could not cry in front of their daughter. For George, the rule was almost impossible to follow. He often needed to excuse himself to the bathroom, so that he could cry for his sick baby girl.
Although the Bushes eventually had another girl, Dorothy, six years after they lost Robin, they never forgot their oldest daughter.
For the rest of their lives, both the former president and first lady were devoted to organizations that helped fight cancer. During his presidency decades later, when George visited a child leukemia ward in Krakow, Poland, he couldn’t suppress his tears.
Although both of the Bushes died more than 60 years after the passing of their daughter, they never forgot her. They spoke of seeing her again, and the thought was a comfort to the Bush family as they grieved.
After Robin’s death, George wrote a letter to his mother describing the hole their daughter had left in their hearts and their home.
“There is about our house a need. We need some soft blonde hair to offset those crew cuts. We need a doll house to stand firm against our forts and racquets and thousand baseball cards,” he wrote. “We need someone who’s afraid of frogs. We need a little one who can kiss without leaving egg or jam or gum. We need a girl.”
It’s clear that even though four years had gone by since his little girl’s death, George still thought of her frequently.
“But she is still with us,” he wrote. “We need her and yet we have her. We can’t touch her and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.”
Even though many of them never met Robin, their family members drew comfort from the thought of George and Barbara being reunited with the daughter they loved and missed so much.
In April, after Barbara’s death, cartoonist Marshall Ramsay published a cartoon of the former first lady arriving in heaven to meet her little girl. After the death of the former president, he published a second cartoon.
It depicts Bush arriving on a cloud in his plane from World War II, holding hands with his wife and daughter. In the cartoon, Barbara tells her husband: “We waited for you.”
On Dec. 1, 2018, Bush’s granddaughter, Jenna Bush Hager, shared the cartoon on her Instagram account.
She expressed her gratefulness for it and the comfort it gave her on the morning after her grandfather’s death. She shared the story of a conversation that she had once had with him where he spoke of seeing his late daughter again.
“I had the opportunity to talk with my grandpa about the afterlife,” she wrote. “This is what he said: He answered without any hesitation. ‘Yes, I think about it. I used to be afraid … But now in some ways, I look forward to it … I hope I see Robin, and I hope I see my mom. I haven’t yet figured it out if it will be Robin as the three-year-old that she was, this kind of chubby, vivacious child, or if she’ll come as a middle-aged woman, an older woman … I hope she’s the three-year-old.’”
Bush Hager said although she had never met her aunt, Robin’s influence on her life and their family had always been felt.
“Robin was the daughter this giant of a man lost years before to leukemia,” she wrote on Instagram. “The little girl he held tightly: who spoke the phrase I have heard Gampy repeat for my entire life, forever knitting Robin’s voice into the tightly woven fabric of our family: ‘I love you more than tongue can tell.’”
The former president’s final resting place is in College Station, Texas, at his presidential library. He will be buried beside his wife and daughter.
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This brought me such comfort this morning. I had the opportunity to talk with my grandpa about the afterlife. This is what he said: He answered without any hesitation. “Yes, I think about it. I used to be afraid. I used to be scared of dying. I used to worry about death. But now in some ways I look forward to it.” And I started crying. I managed to choke out, “Well, why? What do you look forward to?” And he said, “Well, when I die, I’m going to be reunited with these people that I’ve lost.” And I asked who he hoped to see. He replied, I hope I see Robin, and I hope I see my mom. I haven’t yet figured it out if it will be Robin as the three year old that she was, this kind of chubby, vivacious child or if she’ll come as a middle-aged woman, an older woman. And then he said, “I hope she’s the three-year-old.” Robin was the daughter this giant of a man lost years before to leukemia. The little girl he held tightly: who spoke the phrase I have heard Gampy repeat for my entire life, forever knitting Robin’s voice into the tightly woven fabric of our family: “I love you more than tongue can tell.”