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George H.W. Bush on Death, the After Life and Almost Dying in World War II

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George H.W. Bush, who died on Nov. 30, 2018 at the age of 94, lived a long and remarkable life, serving as the nation’s 41st president and raising its 43rd. He also spent 73 of his 94 years married to his wife, Barbara, before her death in April.

But his entire future — including becoming president — was threatened in 1944, when Bush was just 20 years old and serving as a flying officer for the Navy during WWII, according to biographer Jon Meacham, who wrote Destiny and Power: The American Odyssey of George Herbert Walker Bush. During a planned strike on the Japanese island of Chichi Jima, Meacham wrote, Bush’s plane was hit, forcing him to steer through smoke and flames before parachuting out of the aircraft. He bobbed in the water for hours, injured but evading capture by the Japanese, before eventually being rescued by a U.S. submarine.

“For a while there, I thought I was done,” Bush told Meacham of the harrowing incident.

From that near-miss onward, the former President was aware and accepting of his own mortality. Here are some of Bush’s most poignant thoughts on death, aging and the afterlife.

He was at peace with aging

To mark his 88th birthday in 2012, Bush sat down with granddaughter and Today correspondent Jenna Bush Hager for an interview that touched on his advanced age, death and the process of getting older.

“I’m pretty darn old. I’ll tell you, I never thought I’d get this far in chronology,” Bush said. “Aging’s alright. Better than the alternative: not being here.”

He fondly remembered his daughter, Robin

The Bushes, who had six children together, lost their second child, Robin, to leukemia when she was just a toddler. In the late 1950s, Bush wrote a letter to his mother, describing the void created by Robin’s absence, and the family’s yearning for a girl. (At the time the letter was written, the Bushes were raising sons George, Jeb, Marvin and Neil; their second daughter, Dorothy, was born in 1959.) Biographer Meacham read the letter aloud at the National Book Festival in 2016.

“Her peace made me feel strong and so very important. ‘My daddy,’ had a caress, a certain ownership, which touched a slightly different spot than the, ‘Hi, Dad, I love so much,'” Bush wrote. “She is still with us. We need her, and yet we have her. We can’t touch her, and yet we can feel her. We hope she’ll stay in our house for a long, long time.”

Bush believed in heaven

Bush, a devoted Episcopalian and frequent churchgoer, was, like his son, known for his strong faith. It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the former President believed in the afterlife.

In the interview with Bush Hager, Bush said there were a number of people he was looking forward to seeing in heaven — so long as he could find them. “If Barbara predeceases me, I’d probably go with her,” Bush said. “I think my mom, my father, maybe Robin, our little girl that died.”

When Barbara died in April, Bush also said in a statement that, “We have faith she is in heaven, and we know life will go on — as she would have it. So cross the Bushes off your worry list.”

He didn’t like the word ‘legacy’

When asked by his granddaughter to look back on his then-88 years, Bush said, “I’m sure I could have done a lot of things better, but it’s been a fulfilling time in my life — a lot of experiences, including being the President of the United States.”

All the same, tBush said he was uncomfortable with the term “legacy,” preferring to leave his memory to the hands of history. “I want somebody else to define the legacy. I’ve kind of banned the use of the L-word, legacy word,” he told Bush Hager. “I think history will…point out the things I got wrong, and perhaps some of the things we did right.”

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Write to Jamie Ducharme at jamie.ducharme@time.com