The last words spoken by former president George H.W. Bush came barely an hour before he died, in a telephone conversation with his son, former President George W. Bush. The 43rd president had expressed his love for his father. “I love you, too,” the 41st president replied.
The president’s eldest son was on speaker phone, one of a series of final, farewell conversations between the family patriarch and his children, arranged at a moment when those around the former president knew the hours were short.
He had struggled for days, not getting out of bed, eating almost nothing, seemingly in decline from the Parkinson’s disease that had restricted his speech and mobility in his last years. But when the end came, said James A. Baker III, Bush’s friend and confidant of 40 years, “it was a very gentle and peaceful and easy passing.”
Baker and his wife, Susan, were there at the end, the third visit of the day for the former secretary of state. The first visit had come Friday morning. Baker had risen early, as always, and after a long walk decided to pay a visit to Bush, who lived not far away.
He knew the former president was ailing and wanted to see how his friend was doing. He arrived about 7:15 a.m., and when he got there, Bush was sitting up in bed. One of Bush’s caregivers told the former president that “Secretary Baker is here.”
“He looked up at me and said, ‘Bake, where are we going?’ ” Baker said in a telephone interview Saturday afternoon. “I said, ‘Jefe, we’re going to heaven,’ and he said, ‘That’s where I want to go.’ ”
Bush had always been Mr. President to Baker when Bush was in the White House and Baker was his secretary of state. But once Bush was out of office, Baker said he always called him “Jefe,” Spanish for “chief.”
That morning, the former president seemed better than he had been in several days. After not eating anything the day before, he ate a big breakfast – three eggs, a bowl of yogurt, fruit drinks. When he left, Baker and others close to Bush thought Bush was bouncing back, as he had done many times before.
“We thought we’re going to have another week or two of semi-normal stuff,” Baker said. “He was really quite with it and alert.”
Baker and his wife were planning dinner out Friday night, but before heading to the restaurant they decided to pay another visit. It was about 5:45 p.m., and by now it was clear that “things were going a little bit downhill,” Baker said. “Not critically, but some of the vitals were beginning to show disturbing signs.”
Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, was in town and had come to the house to visit. He and the former president had become friends over the years. Jean Becker, the former president’s chief of staff of many years, suggested that Tynan sing something. He chose “Silent Night,” and as he sang, Bush mouthed the words to the beloved Christmas carol. Then Tynan did another song, this one in Gaelic.
“It was a really sweet thing,” Baker said.
The Bakers left Bush’s house and went to dinner. As they were departing, Susan Baker gave the former president a kiss on the forehead. “She said, ‘We love you very much, Jefe,’ ” her husband recalled. “He opened his eyes and said, ‘You better hurry.’ He had his sense of humor even then.”
On the way home from the restaurant, about 8:30 p.m., Baker said they got a call suggesting that they come back to the house. Bush was slipping away. The calls with the children were being arranged as the Bakers arrived. Others, in addition to Bush’s doctor and caregivers and Becker, were Bush’s son, Neil, his wife, Maria, and their son Pierce; a granddaughter, Marshall; and the Rev. Dr. Russell Levenson Jr., the rector at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church.
Bush lost his wife, Barbara, earlier in the year and his own health was an issue. He had lived an extraordinary life – as a youthful aviator in World War II, a member of Congress, U.N. ambassador, director of the CIA, vice president and ultimately president during a tumultuous time in the world. In his post-presidency, he had become a symbol of a style of politics that had seemingly gone out of fashion. He also had jumped out of airplanes.
He was resilient in the face of his ailments. He was determined earlier in the summer to get to the home in Kennebunkport, Maine, where he had spent summers for much of his life. He was equally determined, Baker said, to return to Houston in the fall. He declared that he no longer wanted to go in and out of the hospital when he suffered setbacks. He was determined now to stay at home until the end.
Baker was a regular visitor, their friendship formed through political battle after political battle and through the travails of leadership during periods of conflict and testing. A few weeks ago, Baker and Bush were sitting together in the library of Bush’s home. “I said, ‘You want to live to be 100, don’t you,’ ” Baker said. “He said, ‘Yes I do, but I don’t think I’m going to make it.’ ”
He fell a bit short of that goal, but not until he had made his peace and said his goodbyes. About 40 minutes after telling his eldest son how much he loved him, the 41st president passed away.
May our 41st President Rest in Honor. We can take solace in knowing, that in death, he’s reunited with the woman he so dearly loved.