George W. Bush: Little Lost Boy

Published 6:30 am Saturday, September 18, 2021

“Why are you sad for him? Why aren’t you happy for me?”

These are the words a distressed George W. Bush spoke to his father on the night he was elected governor of Texas, whereas his brother Jeb was defeated on the same night in his race for governor of Florida. Clearly a deeply disappointed George was grappling with the hurtful way in which his father disparaged him. Furthermore, how did this unfortunate snub go on to help shape the life of our 43rd president?

Which hurts are so powerful that they go into the shaping of a child? Certainly his father’s disregard for George’s feelings made an impact. But, for George, Jr. it was only one of many slights. They began much earlier than that election.

There is no question that the absolute defining moment in his very young 7-year-old life was the death of his sister, Robin. In particular, it was not only her death that undermined his world, but the way in which this devastating betrayal was handled by his parents.

George adored his little sister. They were inseparable. Then one morning he woke up to find her gone. She, and all traces of her, had vanished. It was as if Robin had never existed. How could it be that one day she was there and then gone the next? And how was he supposed to understand her absence if no one explained it to him?

In 1953, unbeknownst to little George, his beloved 3-year-old sister was battling leukemia at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York. Mother Barbara was with her, Father George was away on business, and George, Jr. and his baby brother, Jeb, were at home in Midland, Texas.

Father’s absence was the norm because he was always away overseeing the start-up of his new company, Zapata Oil. But, Mother never went away. She always stayed home with George, Robin and Jeb. Now she was no where to be found. Had she taken Robin with her?

Where had they gone? Why had they gone? And, most importantly, when would they come back? While these questions tormented George, no one had the compassion to tell him anything. He was alone in his agony.

Certainly being separated from his mother was something new, mysterious … and damaging. But, what especially made a lifetime effect on George was the fateful decision his parents made to not tell him that his sister was deathly ill.

It was a tormenting time for the young inquisitive George. He had a vague notion that things were terribly amiss but he could find no explanation for what they were. When he asked the nanny his frequent questions, she always dismissed them with a cheerful assurance that there was nothing to worry about.

Meanwhile in her husband’s absence, Barbara was also suffering alone. She was in far off New York single handedly and courageously facing the loss of her child. And to add to their anguish, both parents were harboring the dark and painful secret they were withholding from their little boy.

Of course George knew something was very wrong, and like most children, he blamed himself. If ever a parent needed to talk with their child, it was then. But, it did not happen. Instead his life went on month after month after month not knowing what had happened to his once secure and peaceful world.

George was in school on the day his parents finally returned to Midland. Indeed, he and his friend were carrying a bulky record player back to the principal’s office when George spotted his parents driving up in their green Oldsmobile. He stopped dead in his tracks, set the phonograph down and ran to greet them. There was Mother and Father, but looking everywhere he didn’t see his beloved sister. Where was Robin?

“We felt devastated by what we had to tell him,” Barbara later said. “Little George asked a lot of questions and simply could not understand why we hadn’t told him when we had known for such a long time.” Instead he had been kept outside of the dark, bewildering betrayal only to be abruptly brought back into it, a circle of which he had no grasp. He implored them with questions, seemingly unable to stop in his frantic search to know what had happened. More than anything he wanted to know where was Robin. Heaven was too nebulous an answer.

On a personal note, I hope to goodness that his mother and father did not explain Robin’s death by saying they had “lost” her. Imagine what that word could mean to a small boy. One loses their mitten or their toothbrush or their basketball, but one does not lose a person. Talk about setting oneself up for a lifetime of guilt by using that loaded word. In George’s mind how could he ever forgive them for such blatant irresponsibility? No punishment would ever be enough.

People are not lost. People die. Say it.

Some time later, George and his father were sitting in the grandstand at a ball game. Suddenly George, Jr. announced that he wished he were Robin. A startled father replied, “Why?” “Because,” George Jr. explained pointing up to the sky, “she can see the game better from up there than we can here.”

Later he asked if his sister had been buried lying down or standing up. He had just learned that the earth rotated on its axis and if she spent part of her time standing on her head, well, then that would be pretty neat.

According to all accounts, the agonized struggling child decided to become the family cheerleader when he took upon his slight shoulders the task of dragging his heartbroken family out of its doldrums.

One day Barbara overheard him telling the neighbor boy he couldn’t come out to play. He couldn’t because his mother needed him. Having been deprived of her for so many months, now that he had her again, he was going to keep her.

Neither parent realized how enormously George suffered and how deeply the exclusion affected him. Profoundly dismayed, he hadn’t even known his sister was sick until she was dead. Additionally, he had not been given the opportunity to say goodbye. How was a young lad of seven supposed to navigate on his own through a world so fragile that his mother and sister could suddenly inexplicably disappear?

The hurt made a grave, indelible mark on George’s psyche. Throughout the rest of his life, he would unconsciously—or consciously—repay his parents for shutting him out of Robin’s short life, when he would again and again make them the last to know about the events that were happening in his life.

(To be continued.)