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Death Leaves a Heartache…

Any death, it is said, diminishes all of us and we instinctively know the wisdom of that truth even if we rarely acknowledge the diminishment. Whether it’s a refugee fleeing the madness in Syria or a homeless person under a bridge death is the great equalizer and the one absolute all of us share.

Great wealth or rarified position might set you apart in life from those without either, but we all end up in the same place.

Death is news. A typhoon, a shooting or a capsized boat in some far away place catches our attention, perhaps for only a moment, and we pause to think of those touched by the mortality we all share and then, as we must, we carry on with life.

John Nash - the brilliant mind

John Nash – the brilliant mind

Occasionally the reality, the sadness, the finality and yes, even the hope of the great equalizer touches us more profoundly, more personally. We lose a friend or a friend loses a parent. Someone we admire – a John Nash, the Nobel winning mathematician – or someone worthy of our contempt – a Tariq Aziz, the cynical apologist for Saddam – dies and we mark the passing.

The passing of Vice President Joe Biden’s son Beau last week was such a moment for me even though I know those involved only from long distance and by observation.

Beau and Joe Biden

Beau and Joe Biden

Young Biden just forty-six years old, died of brain cancer leaving a wife and two small children. He’d been attorney general of Delaware and served an Army tour in Iraq. By every account he was a truly exemplary young man. The outpouring of condolences and support for the Biden family was of such a magnitude that in their home state, the family published a full-page thank you in the state’s largest newspaper. The gesture was so classy, personal and obviously heartfelt that it will make you cry.

Joe Biden has often become and not always unfairly, a political punch line, an old school pol that works a room by slapping backs, kissing babies and occasionally tripping over his nearly always moving tongue. He has the gift of gab and unlike so many people who have spent their lives in full public view, Biden seems to relish being where he is. It was painful, moving and somehow also profoundly uplifting to watch the grieving and sorrow of such a public man done in such an obviously authentic and personal way. Biden has had more than his share of the sorrow of unbearable parental loss.

Joe Biden, 1972

Joe Biden, 1972

When Biden, the ridiculously young senator from Delaware, was sworn in back in 1973 he took the oath at the bedside of his son Beau who was still recovering from the injuries he sustained in the automobile accident that killed Biden’s first wife and infant daughter. One photo from that day shows four-year-old Beau with his left leg in traction and his single parent dad hovering nearby. Biden wrote to one correspondent that he doubted he would ever get over the loss or understand why it had happened. Now he must endure it all again.

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden's funeral

Biden and Obama at Beau Biden’s funeral

In his moving and plainspoken eulogy for Beau Biden last Saturday, President Obama said this: “We do not know how long we’ve got here. We don’t know when fate will intervene. We cannot discern God’s plan. What we do know is that with every minute that we’ve got, we can live our lives in a way that takes nothing for granted. We can love deeply. We can help people who need help. We can teach our children what matters, and pass on empathy and compassion and selflessness. We can teach them to have broad shoulders.”

How awful to lose a child and Joe Biden has lost two.

A remarkable informal talk the vice president gave to families who have lost loved ones in Iraq and Afghanistan went largely unnoticed back in 2012, but to listen to the speech now in the context of more unthinkable loss for Biden is, well, stunning. Only the hardest heart would not be moved and impressed by his understanding and empathy.

“No parent should be pre-deceased by their son or daughter,” Biden told the military families as he recounted his own Catholic struggle to overcome being “mad at God.” Biden said the loss of his wife and daughter made him understand how someone confronted with such loss and grief could contemplate suicide.

“Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts,” Biden said, but “because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get – never going to be that way ever again.”

Writing recently in The New Yorker Evan Osnos observed, “In a town [Washington] where ‘family’ is often brandished as a political prop, the Bidens have never attracted a cynical reading. In their tragedy, their striving, their survival and their improbable optimism, the Bidens are a deeply American family—a clan that, even as it edged into privilege, has never looked out of reach or out of touch.”

Such loss as Joe Biden has sustained, one suspects, never goes away. It is amazing when we take time to stop and think about it that the resilience of the human spirit allows us, somehow, in the face of such tragedy to struggle on. That kind of human spirit was evident with the Bidens over the last week.

Joe Biden, the gabbing politician with the flair for saying things that get him in trouble, will never be a laugh line for me again. In a business that so often and so completely lacks “authenticity,” the guy has proven at his most vulnerable moments that he is the real deal. His loss is ours. He’s a dad hurting as only a father (or mother) can. His grace and candor in handling the worst kind of loss a parent can imagine, let alone experience, is not just ennobling, it is a testament to how good people carry on when unthinkable things happen to them.

As the old Irish prayer says:

Death leaves a heartache

no one can heal;

Love leaves a memory no

one can steal.

I’m praying for those Bidens.


The Value of Nothing

Libraries Aren’t Dying, Just Starving

You only need to stroll by the New York Public Library building on 5th Avenue in the big city to know that serious business is done here. The main New York Public Library is a beautiful, iconic building – two handsome lions stand guard out front – that opened in 1911, almost exactly 100 years ago.

Best of all, virtually everything is free. The NYPL notes on its website that the only price of admission if curiosity. Of course, taxpayers support libraries, but the value of the investment pays off to an individual a thousand fold over, or maybe a thousand thousand fold.

Unfortunately, the public library, the great leveler of a society that is increasingly made up of haves and have nots, is having less and less to work with. One of the great myths about libraries, expressed primarily by penny-pinching politicians and folks who never set foot in a library, is that the Internet is making libraries obsolete. It’s a foolish notion on par with thinking that computers can somehow replace teachers or smart librarians.

Yet, even the venerable NYPL is staring down a potential $40 million budget cut that could keep the doors closed three days out of seven.

This devaluing of libraries seems to be a occurring world-wide and it is definitely a step backwards. In England a debate has been raging for weeks about proposed cuts to the library system there. Writing in the Guardian, Robert McCrum, calls the proposed cuts “a thoughtless cultural crime whose after-effects will linger for decades.”

In a piece both celebrating the 100th anniversary of the NYPL and lamenting the real and potential reduction in support of libraries, Laura Miller writes, “Not everything we need or want to know about the world can be transmitted via a screen, and not every experience can be digitized.”

Libraries are valuable for many, many reasons, not least for the sanctuary, solitude and security they provide. In most American communities the library is the safest, most egalitarian place you can visit. Moms bring kids. Grandpas bring grand kids. High school kids bring dates. Old guys read the papers. Young girls study. People lose themselves in books and magazines and folks queue up to get on a computer or, increasingly, check out an e-book.

I’ll get some debate on this assertion, but Boise High School in the north end of Idaho’s capitol city in about the best high school in Idaho and one of the best in the country, yet prize winning writer Tony Doerr found that the Boise High library, smack dab in the middle of a very good school, is depending on donations and fundraising in order to have any new money this year.

 Doerr wrote Sunday in the New York Times, that his mom, a school teacher, introduced him to the magic of libraries. “Thanks to her, in my imagination libraries were little holy lands, as integral to a school as functioning toilets, or lockers, or bad pizza. They were a place where a child could learn that books could be mind-blowing, unpredictable, bawdy and frightening, that books could break down the divisions between nations, between foundations of thought, and between fantasy and reality.”

When societies seek to control ideas – think Nazi Germany – they come after the books. When societies are unthinking about ideas and how knowledge is accumulated and used, they ignore or diminish libraries. Libraries are, quite simply, the repositories of human knowledge. There is no substitute for them. Sure you can find a lot of stuff on the Internet, but you won’t ever find the spirit and soul of a library.

The great writer Umberto Eco says this in the recently published This is Not the End of the Book, “a library is not necessarily made up of books that we’ve read, or even that we will eventually read. They should be the books that we can read. Or that we may read. Even if we never do.”

Exactly. Libraries are neither obsolete nor too expensive. They are, unfortunately, victims of too many folks who, in the words of the old saying, know the cost of everything and the value of nothing.

The next time you hear a politician saying that no one uses libraries any more, ask to see his library card.