Too Short for a Blog Post, Too Long for a Tweet 142

Here are a few excerpts from a book I recently read, "Promise Me, Dad:
A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose," by Joe Biden.

When Dr. Yung checked in on us a little later, I pulled him aside and asked him a question all fathers must: “What should my son do now? How should he live?” He said Beau should be positive and hopeful. He should go home and do whatever he was going to do before the diagnosis. I told him Beau had been planning to run for governor of Delaware. “Then tell him to go home and run for governor,” he said. “He should live like he’s going to live.” 

I wanted the entire family to hear that, so I gathered everybody in the little hallway outside Beau’s room and Dr. Yung explained again that while this would be a difficult fight, there was hope. I think he was looking at Beau when he said it, but the message was intended for all of us. We should not let this disease take over our entire existence. He told Beau to go home and live like he had a future: “Run for governor. Have a purpose.” 

Almost every day after that, I found myself acting on that advice—have a purpose. No matter what came at me, I held fast to my own sense of purpose. I held on for dear life. If I lost hold of that and let Beau’s battle consume me, I feared, my whole world would collapse. I did not want to let down the country, the Obama administration, my family, myself, or most important, my Beau.

At first the guide seemed reluctant to take Finnegan and me to the camp’s notorious gas chamber, but I insisted. I was thinking of the first time I went there, with Beau, how we walked into that building and they explained to us that the prison guards would tell their victims that they were going to the showers and instruct them to remove their shoes, their clothes, and their false teeth. Then the guides led us into the chamber itself and slammed the door behind us with a frightening clank. There are guides at Dachau today who insist the prisoners were never gassed there, or that it was used only a handful of times. But I wanted Finnegan to see all of that, and I wanted her to see the ovens where the guards cremated the victims after they were shot, hanged, starved to death, killed as part of medical experiments, or actually gassed. Max Mannheimer was a living witness. He had been forced to load into wagons the corpses of victims who had died at nearby work camps, then haul them to the ovens at Dachau to be cremated. 

Finnegan saw and heard it all, and then we walked back outside and looked through the fencing at the rows of tile-roofed, middle-class houses just blocks away. The people who lived in those houses in the 1930s and ’40s had to have known what was happening inside this prison camp, I wanted her to understand. They were near enough to literally smell the burning human flesh. How could they not know? 

The thing I wanted Finnegan to feel was the same visceral jolt that had animated so much of my own career in public life. “Look, honey,” I said to Finnegan as we walked back through the gate and back into our own time. “This can happen again. This is happening in other parts of the world now. And you have to speak out. You can’t remain silent. Silence is complicity.”

My eye was drawn to Beau as we talked. His term as attorney general had ended six weeks earlier, so he was no longer pressed by job concerns, and it wasn’t yet late in the evening, but he was already tiring. He was so gaunt, and his face seemed drained of color. I could see the outlines of the leg brace through his pants. For more than twenty years, at any meeting about any political campaign, I had looked to Beau for counsel. He was the only other person in the room that night who had ever stood for and won elective office. Beau’s advice was the advice I would have most valued at that moment. But that night he mainly just sat and observed. Beau had been losing recall of more and more proper nouns lately, and he seemed less willing to fight through it. Ashley had told me that Beau was no longer inviting her into the room for his speech therapy, because his decline really bothered him. Beau said almost nothing that chilly February night in Washington. He would whisper something to his brother instead, and Hunter would speak for him. 

It occurred to me as I watched Beau and Hunter that everybody in that room was playacting to some degree. Whether or not we really bought into Mike’s arguments was a secondary consideration that night. It was as if we were all keeping up an elaborate and needful charade. Steve and Mike knew it as well as my sons and I did. We all understood how much Beau wanted me to run for president. We all knew that, more than anything, Beau did not want to be the reason I did not run. He would be there for me. He could handle it. Beau was trying to reassure us, and we were trying to reassure Beau. So what were the five of us to do that night but put everything else out of our minds and talk about next steps? I had two speeches scheduled in New Hampshire in six days. We should make sure the focus was on middle-class dreams.

I boarded an unmarked plane with my family for a trip to M. D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. Beau would be there for a week at least, to undergo the surgery and then the injection of the live virus. At Beau’s request, we were all working hard to ensure his privacy, which required remarkable acts above and beyond the call of duty by a number of people—most crucially, our Secret Service detail. While I had always greatly admired and respected them, over the course of the previous eighteen months I had developed a new appreciation for the men and women on my detail. The team had shown kindnesses to my family that were well beyond professional and were impossible to repay. I occasionally heard one of the agents say that they were here to protect more than our bodies; they were determined to protect our dignity. And I had become increasingly aware of that in the last few months, especially during our recent family outings, when agents would surreptitiously step in front of citizen photographers to make sure they didn’t get any pictures of Beau’s obvious physical decline. Or how they would hang back at the top of the trail in the Tetons so Beau, Hunter, and I could have a moment of privacy, just the three of us, at the top of a mountain.

Hunter stood by Ashley as she spoke, and when he stepped up to the microphone, Ashley remained to stand by her brother while he did the thank-yous on behalf of the entire family. “The first memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed next to my brother,” Hunter began, recounting the days they were together in the hospital, recovering from the car accident that had taken the lives of their mother and sister. “I was almost three years old. I remember my brother, who was one year and one day older than me, holding my hand, staring into my eyes, saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you,’ over and over and over again. And in the forty-two years since, he never stopped holding my hand, he never stopped telling me just how much he loves me. But mine wasn’t the only hand Beau held. Beau’s was the hand everyone reached for in their time of need. Beau’s was the hand that was reaching for yours before you even had to ask.” Hunter spoke for almost twenty-five minutes, about Beau’s journey through life and all the people he touched. He captured the essence of his brother, without a single false note. Hunter concluded, “He held so many hands. Survivors of abuse, parents of his fallen brothers and sisters in uniform, victims of violent crime in his beloved city of Wilmington. That’s my brother’s story; there are thousands of people telling those stories right now. Telling the same story, about when Beau Biden held their hand. My only claim on my brother is that he held my hand first.… “And as it began, so did it end. His family surrounded him, everyone holding on to him, each of us desperately holding him. Each of us saying, ‘I love you, I love you, I love you.’ And I held his hand, and he took his last breath, and I know that I was loved. And I know that his hand will never leave mine.”

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