When George H. W. Bush was a 20-year-old Navy pilot serving in World War II, he spent eight long months apart from the love of his life — fiancée Barbara Pierce. It was 1944. “I arrived Christmas Eve,” Bush later remembered of his holiday homecoming. “There were tears, laughs, hugs, joy … No reunion could have been scripted more perfectly.”
Now, 74 years later, as the family that George and Barbara Bush built together prepares to lay him to rest on Thursday — just shy of eight months after his wife’s death in April—her namesake granddaughter, Barbara Pierce Bush, thinks she knows why the 94-year-old former president finally let go.
“He’d never spent a Christmas without my grandmother,” Barbara, 37, tells PEOPLE in an emotional interview for the new issue. “He was ready to be with her again. He never said it, but my thought is that he wanted to be with her for the holiday.”
Bush hosted Barbara’s Oct. 7 wedding to screenwriter Craig Coyne at the family’s beloved summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine.
It was after a summer hospitalization there that Bush decided to forego any further medical intervention for myriad nagging health woes, Barbara says. “After my grandmother died, he made it clear that he wanted to go to Maine. He did not want to be in a hospital.”
At Walker’s Point, as the family retreat in Kennebunkport is known, and then at home in Houston after he returned to Texas in mid-October, “there was never a moment when there wasn’t a family member with him,” Barbara says. “He wanted to be in the game, still. He wanted to be included.”
- For more on President George H.W. Bush’s life and legacy—including exclusive interviews with close family and friends—pick up the new issue of People on newsstands Friday.
Barbara says Bush’s huge clan—five surviving children, 17 grandchildren and 8 great grandchildren, plus in-laws, who called Bush “Gampy” and the late former first lady “Ganny”—had coordinated schedules to make sure their patriarch continued to be never without family through the New Year holiday.
“We each planned trips at different times so he would always have visitors,” Barbara says. “But the majority of us didn’t make it.”
Bush passed peacefully at his home in Houston on Nov. 30 at the age of 94.
Now, as they look beyond the ritual and protocol of this week’s funeral services and brace for their first holiday season without both Ganny and Gampy, Barbara, at least, finds her sadness lightened by her faith in a Heavenly reunion just like the one with “tears, laughs, hugs, joy” in 1944.
“I believe deeply,” says Barbara, “That they will be together. And so that makes the loss so much better.”