Findings, music, and occasional reflections by Paul Woodward

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If dying could be sweet

When former presidents or other famous people die, the news of such events is always dominated by recollections of their lives. Generally we learn only the most abbreviated details of the circumstances in which life came to an end.

The final days of George H W Bush’s life were unusual in that they were shared with his lifelong friend James Baker and other friends and family members who then graciously provided the New York Times with an account that conveys tenderness and humanity. It resonates on a level that makes irrelevant the political views any of us might have about the Bush dynasty.

When Mr. Baker came to the house early on Friday morning, Mr. Bush seemed to rally a bit, and it appeared that he would defy death one more time. He began to eat again. He had three five-minute soft-boiled eggs, a favorite, as well as a bowl of yogurt and two fruit drinks. “Everybody thought this is going to be a great day and he’s back and he’s bounced back again,” Mr. Baker said.

Mr. Baker left around 9:15 a.m. but decided to return in the evening when he and Mrs. Baker were on the way to dinner with some friends. “He was sitting up in bed and was able to converse with people,” Mr. Baker said.

But in the car on the way home from dinner, the Bakers received a phone call urging them to come back to Mr. Bush’s house. They arrived about 8:15 p.m. “He had slipped considerably,” Mr. Baker said.

Ronan Tynan, the Irish tenor, had called earlier in the day to ask if he could drop by, and when he showed up, Ms. Becker [the former president’s longtime chief of staff] asked him to sing to the president. Mr. Tynan sang two songs, the first “Silent Night” and the second a Gaelic song.

As he sang “Silent Night,” Mr. Baker said, “Believe it or not, the president was mouthing the words.”

Mr. Baker held Mr. Bush’s hand and rubbed his feet for nearly a half-hour. The other children, who live around the country, were called so they could tell their father goodbye.

Dr. Levenson [rector of St. Martin’s Episcopal Church in Houston], who arrived at 9:15 p.m., led those in the room in prayer. “We all knelt around him and placed our hands on him and prayed for him and it was a very graceful, gentle death,” he said. “It was very evident that that man was so deeply loved.”

There was no struggle, no prolonged period of labored breathing. At 10:10 p.m., the former president slipped away.

“If those things could be sweet,” Mr. Baker said, “it was sweet.”

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