Two items in the news at the start of Advent seemed to be the world’s nod of appreciation for our need for this reflective, penitential season.
The first was the passing of President George Herbert Walker Bush. Although at times it seemed like he might live forever, his end wasn’t entirely unexpected — he was 94, after all, had recently lost the love of his life, was suffering from Parkinson’s and was in and out of hospitals. But the details that emerged about the hours around his death were simple yet stunning illustrations of what we often, or should, pray for: a peaceful, happy death.
The New York Times reported the last conversation he had with his son George W. Bush, another former president. On the phone, W. (43 — shorthand noting chronological place in the history of the presidents) told 41 that he had been a “wonderful dad” and that he loved him. “I love you, too,” in reply, were 41’s last words.
Bush Sr. also had this exchange with his longtime friend and collaborator, former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, that morning:
“Where are we going, Bake?” he asked. “We’re going to heaven,” Mr. Baker answered. “That’s where I want to go,” Mr. Bush said.
Baker explained to the New York Times that the Irish tenor, Ronan Tynan, had called and wanted to stop by. He did and sang “Silent Night,” along with a Gaelic song. Baker says that President Bush could be seen mouthing the words to “Silent Night.”
Can you picture it? He was once the president of the United States — one of the most powerful men in the world. As his end neared, he was a man facing his death, like all of us will, lying down to rest with the Christ child. We come into the world and enter the world with such vulnerability. We should be living that every day.
W.’s daughter, Jenna, also shared a story on Facebook about a conversation she had with her grandfather about how he didn’t fear death as he once did. He looked forward to seeing his mother and daughter Robin — and no doubt his wife Barbara, who recently preceded him in death.
His granddaughter wrote: “Robin was the daughter this giant of a man lost years before to leukemia. The little girl he held tightly: who spoke the phrase I have heard Gampy repeat for my entire life, forever knitting Robin’s voice into the tightly woven fabric of our family: ‘I love you more than tongue can tell.’”
The tongue certainly did its part in the Bush family to try to express the gratitude with which we should live and breathe.
Around the same time, there was an interview with Bruce Springsteen in The Sunday Times in England. Reflecting on the deaths of two members of his E Street Band, he explained that he now regularly visits the Catholic church of his youth in Freehold, New Jersey. “You get more spiritual as you grow older,” he said. “You’re closer to the other world, so maybe that has something to do with it.”
When asked if he’s been to confession, he laughed and said it’s been awhile. What if every Catholic Springsteen fan prayed this Advent that he gets himself to the sacrament, as each of us does during these weeks in preparation for Christmas?
President Bush and Springsteen can serve as reminders and action items. Your love and its impact on others is all you leave behind. Pray even for those you know mostly from the news or from the songs you know by heart. We were all born to run into the arms of the Heavenly Father. This is the season for reorientation, making everything in our lives about eternity.
Kathryn Jean Lopez is a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review and co-author of “How to Defend the Faith Without Raising Your Voice” (OSV, $17.95).