In life and death, love is the most important thing

The 41st president of America, the father of the 43rd president of America, a war veteran, a millionaire by 40, and yet it was the loss of a loved one that was the standout moment in this man’s life, writes Joyce Fegan

Most people’s final words are: “I love you.” They were former US president George HW Bush’s “last words on earth”, and after the Twin Towers came down in 2001, the text messages of the victims mostly said things like “I love you always”, “I absolutely love you”, and “I just totally love you”.

When George W Bush spoke at his father’s funeral this week, he spoke of the man’s great struggles. They included nearly dying from an infection as a teenager, and being stranded alone on a life raft in the Pacific Ocean. He also spoke of his 94-year-old father’s failures, both in life and in politics.

However, “none of his disappointments”, said George W, could compare with one tragedy in his father’s life: The loss of three-year-old daughter Robin in 1953.

The 41st president of America, the father of the 43rd president of America, a war veteran, a millionaire by 40, and yet it was the loss of a loved one that was the standout moment in this man’s life. Throughout his life, he prayed for her “daily,” and in death, looked forward to “hugging” Robin once again.

The girl’s final words in 1953 were something similar. During her treatment for leukaemia, there was a line from a poem she would recite often. It became a Bush family motto:

I love you more than tongue can tell.

George HW Bush’s death followed the death of another nonagenarian, that of 95-year-old Harry Leslie Smith — the Second World War veteran who spent his final years visiting refugee camps and writing about it in best-selling books and in the likes of the Guardian.

The two men died two days apart, Smith on November 28, and Bush on November 30.

Bush was arguably far better known, but Smith came to great prominence in the last eight years of his life, when the Englishman turned to writing to deal with the death of his wife and son.

An example of what Smith had to say: “If you saw thousands of refugees wearily dragging their feet along the dusty roads of war in your youth, and now in your old age you see the same thing happening again to innocent people and do not raise your voice against it, you’ve got no humanity.”

Smith not only fought in the Second World War but was born in the Great Depression and into great poverty. He was the son of a coalminer, and at seven years of age, after his father became unemployed, he supported his entire family working as a barrow boy for a beer bottler. He spent time sleeping in workhouses.

In his later years, having known the indignity of poverty, Smith became a vocal opponent of austerity. His experience as a child and as a soldier became the motivation behind, and the mission of, his writing.

I am one of the last few remaining voices left from a generation of men and women who built a better society for our children and grandchildren out of the horrors of the Second World War, as well as the hunger of the Great Depression,” he wrote.

“Sadly, that world my generation helped build on a foundation of decency and fair play is being swept away by neoliberalism and the greed of the 1%, which has brought discord around the globe. Today, the western world stands at its most dangerous juncture since the 1930s.”

On his deathbed in Canada, (he had emigrated there with his wife Friede after the war), his son John tweeted some of their hospital conversations.

“With concentrated oxygen being pumped through a tube to him in ICU, Harry asks me about the migrant caravan,” wrote John, from his father’s Twitter account with more than a quarter of a million followers.

Having seen both gross poverty and brutal death in his youth, and then gone on to build a life and rear a family, it was love that sustained Harry throughout.

After his father’s death, John revealed the depths of his parents’ relationship. “Five days before my mum died from cancer she said to me: ‘I’m glad I could give your father the love he needed to survive.’ ” Friede had allowed Harry’s “heart to find a safe and loving harbour”.

In a piece that Smith wrote for the Guardian last year, he urged people not to “dread” old age. “As long as there is sentience and an ability to be loved and show love, there is purpose to existence,” he said.

I know a 94-year-old woman. She is a mother to 10, a grandmother to nearly 20, and a great-grandmother to four. After the loss of her husband in her 70s, she took off to Australia with a cousin, and after the loss of both her sight and a dear friend in her early 90s, she kept on going.

Sometimes I try to elicit her wisdom, mine her life for gold, but being a woman of humble nature, she’s modest in her answers.

Her secret? “I try not to think too much and I don’t want to be feeling sorry for myself.”

At 94 years of age, she’s surrounded by friends and family on a daily, if not hourly basis, and she’s even made a new friend. They keep each other seats at lunch and dinner, and for the Late Late Show.

This week, as George HW Bush was eulogised in the Washington National Cathedral, two former presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and two former first ladies, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama, sat side by side in a pew next to Donald and Melania Trump. 

Dignity and respect resumed, if even just for an hour, as George W reminded us of our shared humanity and what matters most, to most people: Family, friends, and our love for both.

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