(In Memory of Beau Biden, 2/3/1969 – 5/30/2015)
Joe Biden may seem like a man on top of the world. Maybe even you, yourself, have looked at him with envy. He’s the Vice President of our nation, after all. He’s second in command. He gets to drink beer with the Commander in Chief. He has a loving wife, a good-looking family, a wonderful smile, and a full head of hair. He is privy to national secrets most of us will never know. Or maybe you’ve never thought too much about him.
But if you have, you probably think he’s achieved the highest level in Maslow’s Hierarchy—self-actualization: “What a man can be, he must be.” As a career politician, he’s poised on Hillary’s Step, pretty damned close to the highest pinnacle on Mt. Everest, wouldn’t you say? Don’t you look at him and think to yourself, “Yessiree, that Joe Biden, he’s a man on top of the world.”
I know I did. Until that day last year, that is. I was driving home from dropping my husband off at Logan Airport. As the sun rose on the eastern edge of our nation, I was one of the few people awake on a Sunday morning. With the radio as my only companion, I heard the sad news. Beau Biden was dead. Learning that he’d left behind a wife and children, my first reaction was a gut level, “Oh, no, his poor family.” As a bereaved parent, my second thought was for his parents.
But even I wasn’t prepared to learn next that this was not our Vice President’s first dance with the grim reaper. Nor that the lovely Jill was not, in fact, Beau’s mom. Sound bites followed about how decades ago in 1972 as a young Senator, he’d buried his wife and daughter following a horrific car accident during a Christmas shopping outing, of all things. Neilia. Naomi. Names we never knew. And even though I hadn’t even had my first sip of coffee, I leaned in. They had my full attention. The accident left Beau and his brother in critical condition. Happily they’d survived. Until now.
Yet another cruel reminder that life can be, oh, so unfair.
I am a bereaved mother too-many times over. I have buried two children and lost many more before they were fully formed. And I know this much to be true. We bereaved parents are always waiting for the other shoe to drop. Even when it already has. Before that morning last year, I rarely gave Joe Biden a first thought. I assumed he was just fine and didn’t need my consideration. Today I am holding this man in my heart. And my heart aches for him.
Now I’ve listened to this speech he gave to the military organization, TAPS, in 2012. Now I know the measure of this man. And I know that he is not, in fact, a man on top of the world. As he says in that profound speech, he understands why people might even want to take their own lives. “Because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
For me, today, this man is no longer simply my Vice President. Even though I voted for him. I may have nothing else in common with Joe, but this much I know. Once you’ve felt that black hole in your chest Joe so aptly describes in his speech, your life is permanently changed. Artificial constructs like politics and wealth and even religion lose their luster. Once you’ve crawled on bloody knees through the valley of the shadow of death, you see the world differently. You look towards the heavens more than you do the opinion polls. You scan the skies for rainbows instead of billboards. You gaze at the stars at night instead of watching reality tv shows. Life, as you know it, is real enough for you.