By Peter Baker
WASHINGTON – Even in the final days of her life, Barbara Bush retained the sharp tongue that belied her grandmotherly image. When her eldest son, former President George W. Bush, visited about 10 days before her death, the two playfully needled each other in the way they always did.
At one point, Barbara Bush turned to her doctor. "You want to know why George W. is the way he is?" she asked.
The doctor looked a little surprised. "Because I drank and smoked when I was pregnant with him," she said.
The former president told that story about his mother on Wednesday as he paid tribute to Barbara Bush, who died at 92 on Tuesday at her home in Houston. Bush, who had congestive heart failure and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, decided earlier this week to decline further medical treatment intended to prolong her life and instead spent her last days saying goodbye to her family.
Former President George Bush, her husband of 73 years and the father of the younger George W. Bush, was by her side when she passed away. Three of their children, Neil, Marvin and Dorothy, had been with her in the last few days, while George W. Bush and former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida had visited recently and stayed in constant touch by telephone, according to a family spokesman.
The younger Bush said that he spoke with her by telephone shortly before her death to tell her he loved her, and she replied that she loved him too.
"It's the end of a beautiful life," George W. Bush told Maria Bartiromo on Fox Business Network on Wednesday morning in his first interview following Barbara Bush's death. "She truly believes that there's an afterlife, that she'll be wonderfully received in the arms of a loving God and therefore did not fear death. And as a result of her soul being comforted on the deathbed, my soul is comforted."
He appeared beside his wife, Laura Bush, who noted that she learned how to be first lady from her mother-in-law. "She was a great role model for me," she said.
The former president said his two daughters – Barbara Bush, who was named for her grandmother, and Jenna Bush Hager – were dealing with the loss of Ganny, as they called her. "They're emotional but as I explained to them, we ought to be joyful that we had such a wonderful woman in our lives and, two, that she passed with such strong beliefs. She truly was peaceful."
Hager, a correspondent on NBC's "Today" show, posted on Instagram a photograph of her as a child sitting next to her grandmother. "I already miss this FORCE of a woman – the 'enforcer' because she was the glue that held our family together," she wrote. "She taught me to use my voice but also to value the opinions of others. She adored her friends and family; her loyalty was unwavering. Humor helps, she often said and it does, Gans, but I will miss your laugh terribly."
Another grandchild took to Twitter to offer a tribute. "My grandmother didn't just live life; she lived it well," wrote George P. Bush, the land commissioner in Texas and the son of Jeb Bush. "And the sorrow of her loss is softened by the knowledge of her impact on our family and our country. I will miss you, Ganny – but know we will see you again."
His father posted his own statement on Facebook. "I'm exceptionally privileged to be the son of George Bush and the exceptionally gracious, gregarious, fun, funny, loving, tough, smart, graceful woman who was the force of nature known as Barbara Bush," Jeb Bush wrote.
Barbara Bush will lie in repose at St. Martin's Church in Houston, where she was well loved. There will be a public viewing on Friday before an invitation-only funeral service on Saturday. Among the luminaries expected will be Melania Trump, the current first lady, representing the White House.
Bush will interred at the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum in College Station, Texas, next to her daughter, Robin, who died at age 3 from leukemia, a searing moment in the life of the future first couple.
Her eldest son had already been scheduled for the interview on Fox Business Network on Wednesday morning to promote a leadership forum at his own presidential center in Dallas. He went through with the event because he said his mother would have wanted him to.
"My mother would say, 'Make darn sure you participate fully in the leadership forum,'" he said. "In other words, 'Don't sit around and feel sorry for me or yourself, more importantly, but move on with life.' And that's what we're doing."