I don’t attend as many book-signing events as I would like. So I was delighted to accept the opportunity last Friday night when a friend with a pair of spare VIP tickets called.
As luck (or fate or providence, depending on your worldview) would have it, the last stop in former Vice President Joe Biden’s tour for his book Promise Me, Dad was in Memphis on Father’s Day weekend.
It was an evening of several firsts. I’d never been backstage at the Orpheum. I’d never even seen Joe Biden before; that night I got to meet him and shake his hand and be photographed standing beside him.
I’d also never read much of his writing, and as part of the event I received a copy of the book.
Subtitled A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose, it’s the poignant story of his son Beau Biden’s losing battle with brain cancer.
One reviewer aptly summarized the book as an account of “private grief and its effect on a public life.”
By early Sunday morning, I was deep into the book, reading outside with the rising sun and my steaming coffee.
Biden employs a yin and yang approach in describing the father-son bond, oscillating between the political goings-on and the personal pains in Beau’s final year.
Both parallel paths are insightful. The inner workings of his vice presidency, and his relationship with the president, are interesting and intriguing.
They are made even more so in the context of every parent’s nightmare scenario, and the hindsight of what was happening outside the public view in 2015.
Joe Biden had nearly lost Beau four decades earlier, when a car accident claimed the life of his first wife and baby daughter a week before Christmas in 1972. Both sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured in that crash.
Promise Me, Dad opens with Thanksgiving 2014 and the Biden family traditions associated with that holiday, and chronicles the next six months of hope and struggle with anecdotes, diary entries and a father’s heart-wrenching recollections.
In one passage, Joe recounts coming into the hospital room to see Beau in early May 2015 and telling him about Elton John’s visit to the White House.
Joe writes about reminiscing aloud to a sedated Beau about singing “Crocodile Rock” while driving to school.
I remember when rock was young, me and Suzie had so much fun…
Well Crocodile Rocking is something shocking when your feet just can’t keep still,
I never knew me a better time and I guess I never will …
He didn’t say which verses he sang softly through stifled sobs to Beau, but my own kids loved that song, too, and our family sang it loud like the Bidens.
Just a few pages later, Joe described a medical team meeting with the family at which he was told “the four most devastating words” he ever heard in his life:
“He will not recover.”
When the moment of eternity arrived, on page 189 in the book, my eyes were a watery mess. I read his diary entry of May 30, 2015, with halting breaths: “It happened. My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.”
As a national politician, with prominent participation at a few historical junctures (the Bork nomination comes famously to mind), Joe Biden has earned plenty of detractors and critics.
The book is political enough that pundits have wondered aloud whether its publication and tour constitute another set of feelers put out to gauge public sentiment regarding a possible Biden presidential run.
In it he touts his accomplishments, outlines his ideology, and waxes wistful about the ebbs and flows of events and advice that led to his decision not to run in 2016.
Official word is that no final verdict will be rendered on running in 2020 until after the midterm elections.
In watching and hearing him speak, the sense I got most was that at his age and at this stage in his life, he’s putting his family and legacy to them first.
But that might have just been because it was Father’s Day weekend, and he was sharing intimate emotions as a dad who has lost a child on two different occasions.
I came away inspired to hope for the better from our hyper-polarized political environment.
Joe Biden could never get my vote because we differ too fundamentally on too many foundational issues.
But I admire and applaud him as a father and family man who has known bereavement at a level that is incomprehensible to me, and yet leaned on his faith to let hope not just survive, but prevail in his life.
We all should be able to disagree philosophically, but then turn around and admire personally, and even weep collectively over a soul-piercing hurt.
Few knew what Joe Biden was going through in 2014 and 2015, but everybody with children can imagine it. His book helped me relate to it, and say an extra prayer of gratitude for fatherly blessings last Sunday morning in the reverent quiet of my backyard.
A good holiday was made better. Thanks, Joe.