It was a slight catch in the throat. A momentary choke-up. George W. Bush was speaking at an ornate podium, two microphones pointed his way. Before him was a well-dressed crowd, gathered in a famous cathedral. He’d experienced such moments countless times as president of the most powerful nation on Earth. Stately moments. All eyes on him. He’d spoken with authority, strength, confidence.
But this time, he stumbled. Something doubled him over. He was saying these words at his father’s memorial service: “So through our tears, let us know the blessing of knowing and loving you, a great and noble man…”
And then: “The best father a son or daughter can…haaaave…”
His body bent, his eyes squeezed shut and his vocal cords quivered. And for that one moment, the former president of the United States of America was every man or woman who ever had to eulogize a parent, who ever tried to utter those words and realized, in that choking instant, what they really meant.
Saying goodbye. Anyone who has gone through the loss of a parent knows there is no predictable moment when it really hits you. Sometimes it’s the actual moment of death, watching helplessly as the soul goes from here to gone. Sometimes it’s returning to an empty house, rummaging through drawers or papers or old photographs. Sometimes it’s waking up the next day, thinking everything is normal, then remembering it’s not.
But often it’s up on a podium, as it was for Bush, in front of family and loved ones, when to try to put your loss into words. And you say that sentence, “The best father a son or daughter could have.”
And you realize you don’t have that father anymore.
I know what Bush felt. And so do you
I watched on TV as Bush endured that moment. And I felt more connected to him than I ever did when he was in office. I’ve talked to friends who have said the same thing. That one struggling instant, that throat choke, humanized the former president in a way that no campaign ad ever could.
Because in the end, we are all children. We all come from two parents. And in most cases, if we live long lives, we will lose those parents and have to wonder what comes next.
I know from experience. It was a year ago this week that I was eulogizing my own father. I remember writing the paragraphs. I remember printing them out. I remember putting on my suit and tying my tie and standing up at the funeral parlor, the sun coming through the chapel window.
And after that, I don’t remember much, except reading the words and hearing them come out of my throat. And at multiple times, sometimes a funny story, sometimes a childhood memory, but usually a declarative sentence like, “We will miss you, Dad,” I broke down.
And at that moment, I was the same as so many people, the same as President Bush, perhaps the same as you, stating out loud, to the world, that my father was gone, and feeling like I’d just been whacked with a two-by-four.
We’re more alike than different
It’s been an interesting week for the humanization of our leaders. When George H.W. Bush, the 41st president of the U.S., passed away, there was a wave of fond reflection and even nostalgia for his presidency. He was appreciated more warmly than he ever was in office.
Then came the moment when retired Sen. Bob Dole, the former presidential candidate and, like Bush, a World War II veteran, was rolled in a wheelchair to the coffin of his friend, colleague and one-time rival. Struggling, needing help, Dole nonetheless insisted on being lifted to his feet, so he could properly salute the former president in a touching act of silent honor.
As Tom Brokaw would tweet, “If Bob Dole saluting the casket of George Bush didn’t move u, check your heart. It may be awol.”
Then, at the Washington National Cathedral, the second largest church building in the country, the same place where Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford and Dwight Eisenhower had their funeral services, we watched a son’s loving tribute to his father and witnessed the moment when the 43rd president of this country, for all his power and wealth and influence, was just a grieving child, bound to all other grieving children in the world who were watching.
The old expression states that the only thing certain in life are death and taxes, but nobody gets choked up over taxes. In one catch of a former president’s throat, we were reminded how we are all more alike than different. It was sad, it was tender, and it made me think of my own dad, and how much I miss him, and how hard it was, and will forever be, I suppose, to really say goodbye.
Contact Mitch Albom: firstname.lastname@example.org. Check out his latest best-selling book, “The Next Person You Meet in Heaven,” available online and in bookstores nationwide. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.