Barbara Bush and the End We All Face

Update: About a day after I posted this piece, Barbara Bush passed away. I pray for comfort for those close to her.

It’s truly sad news: former First Lady and longtime Houstonian Barbara Bush, surely one of the quickest wits to ever grace the White House, has decided to forego further medical efforts to cure the illnesses that will end her life. She is 92 years old.

Many of you don’t remember her, given that she last was First Lady 25 years ago. So I’d like to share my own Barbara Bush story.

It takes place in August 1992 at the Republican National Convention in Houston, where I served as a volunteer. Yes, I was a strong Republican in those days, but it was a much, much different party back then. (In fact, 55 percent of all Asian Americans casting ballots in that November’s presidential election voted for Barbara’s husband, incumbent President George H. W. Bush, to win a second term. He was defeated by Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton, with independent Texas billionaire H. Ross Perot playing the part of spoiler.)

Me minus 25 years.

My morning shift mostly involved checking the passes of politicos, journalists, and vendors maneuvering through the hallways and tunnels leading to the floor of the Astrodome. But at one point, the Secret Service instructed me and a couple of my fellow volunteers to move back a good 100 feet from our post. The reason? Barbara Bush’s motorcade was approaching! I caught just a glimpse of the long black sedan as it pulled up slowly into the stadium.

Shortly afterward, we were allowed to resume our previous positions. Over the course of the morning, noted journalists like Peter Jennings (whose autograph I got) and Cokie Roberts (whose signature I didn’t get because I blanked on her name) passed through our checkpoint, which made for its own bit of excitement. Then the Secret Service informed us we had to move back again because Barbara Bush was about to walk down the main hallway closest to our location.

We volunteers chatted among ourselves about how the famously independent-spirited First Lady might have chafed at the amount of security precautions taken on her behalf. And then, hearing a commotion, we looked into the hallway and saw a golf cart zip by. It was Barbara Bush herself at the wheel, with nary a Secret Service agent in sight.

She wasn’t about to let herself be caged! It was truly delightful to witness.

I will miss seeing her sitting behind home plate at Houston Astros games. I’ll miss hearing her poke wicked fun at her famous sons, former President and Texas Gov. George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush.

The end of this life comes for us all, regardless of how distinguished or delightful our lives have been.

Now in my mid-forties, I’ve thought a lot about my own mortality over the last several years, realizing I probably have fewer years remaining than I’ve already lived. Recently, when getting together with high school friends I hadn’t seen in nearly three decades, I confessed that it took two or three years just to get over the shock of turning 40.

Creek Mini-Reunion
With dear friends Marnie, Huy, and Lorie in Orlando, where I was speaking at a conference.

One of the resources that has spoken the most helpfully to me in my midlife angst is the British television show Doctor Who. Seriously.

In the U.S., you’re truly a geek if you watch Doctor Who. (It’s fairly popular in the U.K. but still somewhat obscure on our side of the, shall we say, Pond.) It’s a science fiction franchise that first launched in 1963, ceased production in the 1990s, then resumed in 2005. Since its restart, the BBC America channel has made new seasons accessible to audiences here; I’ve been watching the last several on Amazon Prime.

The show is not actually new to me. When I was a teenager, I occasionally watched syndicated episodes that ran on PBS on Saturday afternoons or evenings. But jumping back into it over the last several months, I’ve really been struck by all the good-byes that are part of the story line. Every other season, it seems that one major character dies or otherwise disappears from the narrative.

That’s partly a function of the main character, The Doctor, a time-and-space-traveling alien who fights injustice and oppression throughout the universe. He is practically immortal; whenever he dies, his body “regenerates” into a new one (though the number of times this can happen is finite). A new actor then takes the role of The Doctor, giving the character a completely different look and a significantly different personality. Regeneration episodes usually produce tears from the characters and often from the viewing audience, too.

Dr Who Goodbyes with Quote
Some of Doctor Who‘s tearful good-byes.

The good-byes are also frequent because The Doctor almost always travels with a buddy or two. These are the “companions”; they’re usually human, and always, before long, they become very close friends with The Doctor. But because they accompany The Doctor into new dangers in each episode, they also don’t survive for more than two or three seasons.

When I first began watching the renewed series, I thought, “Why do so many people love this show with all of its tear-jerking farewells? Life is hard enough as it is; I don’t need any fictional sadness to make it harder.” But then I noticed that one of the repeated plot devices is the ability of The Doctor’s race of beings, the Time Lords, to erase selected memories of others. Whenever this happens in the story line, it’s to save someone’s life or to spare someone great suffering. It’s definitely tragic, and viewers get the sense that such a fate may actually be worse than death.

In one dramatic example, The Doctor tells his dear companion Clara, who has been with him on numerous adventures, that he needs to wipe her memories of him, for her own protection. She won’t have it – at all.

The Doctor and Clara. (BBC)

DOCTOR: When you wake up, you will have forgotten me. You’ll have forgotten we ever even met.
CLARA: And why would I want that?
DOCTOR: Because it’s the only way. That stuff in your head, the image of me, they could use it to find you.

(Moments later)

DOCTOR: I’m trying to keep you safe.
CLARA: Why? Nobody’s ever safe. I’ve never asked you for that, ever. These have been the best years of my life, and they are mine. Tomorrow is promised to no one, Doctor, but I insist upon my past. I am entitled to that. It’s mine.

The idea is this: as terrible as it is to lose a loved one, and as painful as it is for people who care about each other to be separated by death, not ever knowing them would be far worse.

This theme appears in the show at other times, when a time traveling character’s actions threaten to change history so that another character is never born. Again, Doctor Who reminds me: losing a loved one is a horrible experience, yet it would be even worse if we’d never known that loved one in the first place.

Believe it or not, this has actually brought comfort to my heart. It helps me to take a small step toward accepting there will be sorrow when I inevitably die, but a greater sorrow would be to fail to live boldly and love extravagantly my wife, my daughters, and everyone else God brings into my world.

Yes, I do believe in heaven and in the reunion of loved ones that awaits there. But I’ll be doing myself and others a disservice if I fail to plunge into life fully because I’m stuck worrying about how much of it remains.

An American beloved by family and nation. (NBC)

Barbara Bush, by all accounts, is facing the conclusion of her earthly life with dignity and courage, having come to terms with the approaching end, choosing to embrace life fully in her last days. I hope that by God’s grace, I’ll do the same for however long I have on this side of eternity, choosing to love and receive love with gusto, treasuring the preciousness of life and milking it for all it’s worth.