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.
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.
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.
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.
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.