On Saturday, the nation will mourn the loss of former first lady Barbara Bush, who died Tuesday. After her funeral, which will take place at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston, Bush will be buried next to her daughter, Pauline Robinson “Robin” Bush, near the George G.W. Bush Library in College Station, Tex.

In 2013, Barbara Bush said she didn’t fear death. It was in part because the former first lady had faced it before, in the hardest way imaginable. Her first daughter, Robin, died in October 1953 at a hospital in New York.

“For one last time I combed her hair and held our precious little girl,” Barbara Bush wrote in her 1994 memoir.

Barbara Bush (Reuters/Lily illustration)
Barbara Bush (Reuters/Lily illustration)

Robin’s diagnosis and death

In 1953, soon after George H.W. Bush had moved his family to Midland, Tex., to get into the oil business, the couple’s 3-year-old daughter complained about feeling tired. Robin was normally as rowdy and healthy as her older brother George W. and baby brother Jeb. Barbara decided to take her to a pediatrician.

Her diagnosis was shockingly abrupt. The doctor called the Bushes a few days later with a word neither had ever heard before: leukemia. The complaint had been fatigue; the prescription was to take their child home to die.

“Her advice was to tell no one, go home, forget that Robin was sick, make her as comfortable as we could, love her — and let her gently slip away,” Bush wrote in her memoir. “She said this would happen very quickly.”

But the Bushes had means and determination, and they fought the death-sentence diagnosis, beginning a months-long ordeal that would have lifelong impacts on a family that would come to include two presidents.

The Bushes flew with Robin to New York, moving into the apartment of George H.W. Bush’s grandparents on Manhattan’s East Side. His uncle was a doctor at Sloan Kettering, a leading cancer center even when cancer was barely understood and nearly taboo to mention.

Robin stayed in the hospital for seven months, having regular bone marrow tests and blood transfusions. On one quick outing to Maine, Robin finally saw her two brothers, whose pictures were taped to her hospital headboard.

The Bush boys had no idea their sister’s life was ebbing away.

In October, Robin died with her parents in the room.

They gave the little body that had been claimed by a mysterious disease over to medical research, then had their daughter buried in a family plot in Greenwich, Conn. When former president George H.W. Bush’s library was established, they moved her to Texas, and Barbara Bush kept a portrait of her daughter in her Houston living room.

How Robin’s death changed the family

USA Today reporter Susan Page, who is writing a new biography of Barbara Bush, spoke to the former first lady about the episode last fall, 64 years to the month after Robin’s death.

“I think this was a very powerful tragedy in their lives,” Page said. “No mother would ever forget a child, but Robin has remained a real presence for them.”

But the tragedy didn’t break the family. If anything, it made them closer. The agony Barbara Bush faced after the death of her daughter was made more bearable by her relationship with her husband, she said.

George W. has said Robin’s death forged a bond with his mother that he leaned on through his father’s presidency and then his own. Each felt responsible for shoring up the other.

George H.W. Bush with his wife, Barbara, and son, George W., in Rye, N.Y., during the summer of 1955 — two years after Robin’s death. (AP)
George H.W. Bush with his wife, Barbara, and son, George W., in Rye, N.Y., during the summer of 1955 — two years after Robin’s death. (AP)

In a Post profile about that mother-son relationship in 1999, Barbara Bush described the moment she realized young George was bucking her up:

One day … she heard her son tell a friend that he couldn’t come out because he had to play with his mother, who was lonely. “I was thinking, ‘Well, I’m being there for him,’ ” she recalled. “But the truth was he was being there for me.”

“That started my cure,” she wrote in her memoir. “I realized I was too much of a burden for a little 7-year-old boy to carry.”

It was during this period, at age 28, that Barbara’s dark hair began to go white giving her the gray coiffure that would become known to the world. But the Bushes thrived. The couple had three more children, including another girl, Dorothy, and presidents to make.

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