Editor's note: This essay was posted online Tuesday afternoon before Barbara Bush died at age 92.
In the spirit with which we mark life’s other landmark events, I would like to wish former first lady Barbara Bush a peaceful passing.
Mrs. Bush is nearing the end of her long and eventful life. It’s reflective of her characteristic candor that this was made public Sunday, when her family announced that she will no longer accept medical treatment other than palliative care.
Death is natural, but the systemic breakdowns that often lead up to it can be wrenching: painful, exhausting, dependent. According to a family spokesman, Mrs. Bush has been less concerned for herself than for her family.
“Barbara Bush has been a rock in the face of her failing health, worrying not for herself — thanks to her abiding faith — but for others,” said spokesman Jim McGrath.
That is grace. It’s class.
The catchall category “political wife” is too dismissive for Mrs. Bush — really, it’s too dismissive for anybody — but she was an undisputed personality in her own right. The directness that contributed to her public popularity was, by some accounts, sometimes blistering for those who felt its full force from up-close.
Her family calls her “The Enforcer,” a term reportedly coined by her son, former president, and Dallas resident George W. Bush (yes, for present purposes, those are in descending order of importance).
“I’m in my thirties, but my grandmother’s words and reprimands can still sting, making me tear up and sniffle like a child,” wrote Jenna Pierce Bush, recounting an anecdote about Mrs. Bush sending her a tart note for showboating during a family tennis match. “That is my grandmother: exacting and determined to protect the ones she loves.”
Now 92, Mrs. Bush came of age in an era during which women often were not permitted to speak their own minds, and certainly not in the — to mix a garish metaphor — hothouse fishbowl of American politics.
Maybe, after weathering a turn as first lady (possibly the worst, most thankless, most ill-paid and over-scrutinized quasi-job in government) the steady downward drift of failing health has been easy to weather, but I doubt it.
Rational science and human decency have done much to ease the end of life. Hospice programs provide a framework to ease pain and to help often bewildered families navigate the transition; enlightened doctors understand when the definition of “heroics” shifts from prolonging life to making the most of what remains.
Culturally, we haven’t done as well. Death, the experience that every single one of us will share, remains a scary mystery. Families conceal its approach, as if it were a shameful secret. In our simple-minded obsession with “winning” and “strength,” death equates with “losing,” the ultimate weakness.
We would be happier people if we wised up.
“We’ve lost the rich wisdom of normal human dying,” writes British palliative care specialist and author Dr. Kathryn Mannix. “It’s time for us to talk about dying and reclaim this wisdom.”
My sister-in-law lost her own cherished mother, who was in hospice care in Baton Rouge, on Sunday. It was a passing with grace and meaning, as a network of family and friends created a spontaneous support base.
“What an incredible gift the past 12 days have been,” writes my sister-in-law, Carlen Pool Floyd, in a pitch-perfect tribute. “I am so proud to be from a place where both life and death are celebrated, where people open their hearts and homes to you, offering to wash your clothes, give you a place to sleep, or bring you something to eat … My mom embodied the very best of these South Louisiana values.”
Today, I read a lot of comments written in admiration of Mrs. Bush that include the caveat “even though I didn’t agree with her husband/son’s politics … ”.
Well, she didn’t always agree with them, either. Let me offer my admiration without planting a political flag here — in no small measure because she frequently offered inspiring proof that successful marriages do not require political agreement.
In making that simple announcement that Mrs. Bush is ready to limit medical treatment to “comfort care,” she and her family are offering a measure of comfort to all of us: This is life, too. This is acceptance.
It’s just possible that Mrs. Bush, for all her directness (or maybe because of it) had a rare and uncanny ability to recognize what would matter most in that final stage long before she ever got there.
“Cherish your human connections: your relationships with family and friends,” she advised graduates when she delivered the commencement address to the Wellesley College class of 1990.
These were high-powered young women about to embark on meaningful careers, and Mrs. Bush congratulated them. And then she added:
“You’ve had impressed upon you the importance to your career of dedication and hard work. And, of course, that’s true. But as important as your obligations as a doctor, a lawyer, a business leader will be, you are a human being first. And those human connections … are the most important investments you will ever make.
“At the end of life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a child, a friend, or a parent.”
I suspect Mrs. Bush has little to regret, maybe because she has kept that essential truth close.
It’s valuable how-to advice, a parting gift. We should take it to heart.