Mike and I, the one the President called “a little guy.”

Met the King — The Bittersweet Day I Met a US President Who Personally Changed My Life

Politics don’t matter to me. They never have, to this day they still don’t. My attitude’s always been someone smarter than me needs to lead us, and for the most part, someone has.

Politics were the last thing on my mind January 10, 2010, standing in the top floor hospice room of MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

One of my older brothers, Mike, the police officer, was with me in the room. His wife, my son, our brother Jimmy, all hovered or leaned against the walls. The room didn’t have enough places to sit, but nobody wanted to. Her room, the last one on the left before the corner, had enough open wall to rest against.

Two elephants were in the room, but we pretended not to see or smell them.

My only sister, Michelle, we called her LiLi, the oldest kid in our family, lay dying on the bed literally in the middle of us. Cancer ravaged her internally in 5 different ways: colon, liver, lung, stomach and reproductive system. She wasn’t on her last legs, no, basically she was gone. We just weren’t okay with it yet and her automatic breathing hadn’t stopped. Frozen in time and in that space, nobody moved for fear it meant she was finished.

Elephant two? The poison smell. Death by liver cancer can’t be described. If a liver isn’t working, toxins can’t be removed since they act as giant pool filters. So if the liver doesn’t function, the toxins build up badly. The odor — horrific — permeated the air and forever will be burned in my memory, the walls, those clothes, my nose. Don’t die this way. Just don’t. Ignoble.

When my parents finally told me the truth about her condition, she was already in Stage 4, terminal. Her treatment at MD Anderson was for any extra time she could get. Surprisingly, the girl who was the biggest pushover, and I can say that because she was my sister, fought like hell and held on for 3 years. Amazingly long, all things considered. This was her inevitable exit, but knowing it was coming didn’t make us hurt less.

Half a year after we found out LiLi was terminally ill, our father Howard died from untreated diabetes at the end of 2007. We didn’t expect him to pass as he didn’t appear very ill. My brothers and I believe the shock of LiLi’s circumstance and his body overwhelmed by mismanaging his blood sugar caused him to give up. His death that November, was surreal and a surrender.

Compound that with our mother Terri, an intellectual, articulate, total smart aleck, succumbed to glioblastomas, wicked brain tumors, just 8 months after Dad died. We had no idea she had the tumors until after Dad’s death when speaking to us, she repeated herself — repeatedly. No way she’d normally make such a mistake.

We discovered three tumors the size of small oranges were squeezing her brain. Mom had no idea who I was and before she left us, reverted back to being a 4-year-old. At least she had chocolate pudding to make her happy at her end. That was the last thing she said to me, “chocolate pudding.”

LiLi’s would be the third death in 24 months. We were drowning in loss. Staying vertical was a victory, all of us one crack away from an emotional avalanche.

Mike, a stout man, wide shouldered and tall, guarded the doorway, inadvertently policing the room’s entry. We chatted and waited. Stood silent and waited. Facing the hall from the inside of the room, like all good officers do, made it so nothing caught him off guard.

And just that, a commotion, caught Mike’s eyes and his immediate reflex was to look. Four Secret Service men, darkly dressed, moving fast, arrived in the main hallway of the hospice floor. Two went east/west, two went north/south, curled cords peeked out of their collars to earpieces in their ears. They swept the area for safety reasons.

The rest of us heard sounds but couldn’t make out what was happening. Mike stepped into the hallway to investigate. After giving the clear, one of the agents came to grab Mike’s hand to shake it. They were smiling, talking freely, a pat on the back of familiarity. Turns out they worked a security detail together when President Bill Clinton was in Houston. They had an easy camaraderie as most guys in law enforcement do.

The family was cordial to the agent and I wish I could remember his name. I’d be a liar if in the sorry state I was in, that I did. Then Mike asked him, “So who’s on their way — ”

Interrupted by the furious clicking sound of his cane and the urgency in the arriving man’s gait, we all turned to see. Out of nowhere and much taller than expected, strode in former President George H. W. Bush, the 41st President of the United States, just going like holy hell. He literally came in like gangbusters.

Next door in the corner room of the hospice floor was former US Secretary of Commerce Robert Mosbacher, a fellow politician and longtime friend of President Bush from early on and in Washington. He was also dying of cancer, his pancreatic. His time was drawing near, passing two weeks later on January 24th. The President had come to pay his respects.

Noting his agent had a friend engaged in conversation, we were shocked that the President popped his head over to say hello. We all shook his hand and made introductions. He inquired about my sister, regal and kind in his gentle questioning.

Having never had a grandfather, again, my folks were too old, their folks had died before I was even born, so I assume this is what a grandfather is like. Interested, curious, with a quick wit and ready smile, I liked him right away. He was neat. Comforting.

He could tell from my crumpled face the weight of her dying was crippling. I was 36, married, with kids of my own. But we’d been through the ringer, I couldn’t hide it. Saying goodbye to our sister, another loss to our little tribe, President Bush detected we were raw.

So the previous detail about the smell, it was present even at the time we met the President. How in the world this gracious man had the poise to ignore it, I don’t know. He’s a trooper. He popped over to visit “Bob,” then unexpectedly, returned to our room to talk further about all kinds of stuff. I was delighted he came back.

Eight years later I still remember what he said. Twenty-five years from now I’ll still remember what he said.

In his best Kennebunkport accent he told the story of going to see a movie with his lovely wife Barbara, the former First Lady. Bahhh-er-bahhh-er-ah. I’ll never forget how he said her name. He spoke like a typical northerner like my family, but from the region where an “a” takes 3 syllables.

“Barbara and I went to see that new movie, the one with Matt Damon. There’s rugby and it’s about South Africa. Invictus, was it?” he asked looking to his men for clarification. They nodded. “The one with a story about Nelson Mandela.” He paused. He looked for confirmation again. “Yes, Mr. President.”

His crinkly cheeks and glistening eyes would make you think he’s one of Santa’s elves instead of the former leader of the free world. We hung on his every word, dialed in and he knew it. I had no idea he was such a charming storyteller, but he was rather the talented orator. After telling us about the movie, the damnedest thing came out of his mouth.

“Yes, he was okay. I liked Mandela alright. But Winnie? She was a witch.” He chuckled, “He he he.”

He didn’t just say she was a witch?

Yes.

Yes he did. Then we laughed. No, guffawed. We couldn’t help it. His face, now sunny with mirth, beamed brighter because he cheered us up. He smiled because we smiled.

Mike’s face lit up in his signature silly grin, the one that’s a grimace crossed with a blush. He looked at me and raised his eyebrows, wiggling, like a caterpillar leaving a cocoon. He asked through the look if I heard that, too? Did he just call her a witch? You bet your bippy he did.

“Well then, Mr. President, that is not exactly what we would have thought. But I am glad you enjoyed the movie,” Mike said.

“Sure did, wasn’t bad. Not too bad.” He reached into his blazer like he’d grab his keys, patting his pockets, but surely he hasn’t driven in 30 years. Coming up empty, though I swear, if the man had mints in those pockets he’d have given us all one. He was just so great. And human.

“Well, they’re telling me I have to go. So, I better be off. I hope you’re all okay.” He turned to every single one of us, shaking hands, giving condolences. We each had his full attention and time.

“I’m sorry, so sorry, you’re dealing with this.” He grabbed my hand to shake it and gave me the sweetest look. “God bless you” he said earnestly.

Exiting he shook Mike’s hand last, patted him on the shoulder and said, “I see you’re a little guy.” They both laughed because they stood eye to eye, each many inches past 6 feet tall and Mike a very meaty man.

With that, he and the Secret Service agents swept out as they swept in, swiftly and quick. The last sound I heard was the cane’s click-click, zooming over the white tile floor. And he was gone. Was this a dream? The Night Before Christmas?

Our room returned to quiet but was really more stunned. It’s impossible to describe our collective new disposition. I think of it like we got a meteor shower maybe. We felt the positive light for sure.

As the sun set that evening, LiLi was officially declared done. Machines were stopped. Personal effects collected. The family decided I’d handle funeral arrangements. Again. The third time.

We hugged. We cried. We knew the drill, especially me. I dreaded the calls I’d make tomorrow.

Driving away from the hospital, I was alone with my thoughts on the Hardy Tollway heading home. Worst day ever. Terrible. But something occurred to me as I turned in the driveway.

President Bush was the hero who helped me. I’ll credit him being the life preserver keeping me from drowning. He pulled me out of the dark water for a moment. A moment I desperately needed. Today was awful, but I had met a star.

But better though, I believe my sister’s pain ended and the cancer was gone. Her spirit was set free. I had no doubt she went to Heaven.

And there, our sweet LiLi — met the King.

Author/illustrator of Uh-oh Otter, The Flying Meatball & owner of Werzcat Books. Dog shelter volunteer, yoga teacher, mom of 4, @swilsonwillis. Austin, TX

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