My wife Neilia and our 18-month-old daughter Naomi had died in a car accident while out shopping.
Our sons Beau and Hunter had been in the car, too. They pulled through without permanent damage, but not before spending weeks in the hospital.
The pain seemed unbearable in the beginning. I remember vividly, after Neilia died, not being able to open the closet door of the bedroom we shared. I remember the anguish of smelling her scent on the pillows and looking at the empty spot on the bathroom sink where her toothbrush had been.
I wasn’t able to stay in that bedroom; I sold my house and got out. It took me a long time to heal, but I made it through, with a lot of support, and reconstructed my life and my family.
Over the years since, I have found that my presence almost always brings some solace to people who have suffered sudden and unexpected loss. Not because I am possessed of any special power, but because my story precedes me.
They know I have a sense of the depth of their pain.
My wife Neilia and our 18-month-old daughter Naomi had died in a car accident while out shopping. Our sons Beau and Hunter had been in the car, too. Pictured: Biden with his son Beau in 2008
Over the years since, I have found that my presence almost always brings some solace to people who have suffered sudden and unexpected loss. Pictured: Biden and his family at his son Beau’s funeral in 2015
It amazes me how many people there are who live with devastating loss with nowhere near the support I have had.
So I try to be mindful, at all times, of what a difference a small human gesture can make to people in need, to let them know: I get it. You’re not alone.
In 2014, many years after my own tragedy, I drove to Brooklyn with my second wife Jill to visit the family of a police officer who had been murdered the Saturday before Christmas.
Wenjian Liu, just 32, and another officer had been executed by a lone gunman while sitting quietly in their patrol car, just doing their job.
At his house, I was met by a translator because Liu’s parents were not comfortable speaking English, preferring their native Cantonese. Liu’s father Wei Tang gave me a hug when we entered and touched my face. He was a small wiry man who was trying hard to be brave.
‘Thank you,’ he said, over and over, while his wife kept her distance and bowed politely.
Liu’s young and beautiful wife of three months, Sanny, was there, too. I gave her my private phone number.
‘When you’re down and you feel guilty for burdening your family and friends,’ I told her, ‘pick up the phone and call me.’
It amazes me how many people there are who live with devastating loss with nowhere near the support I have had. Pictured: Biden talks with his son Beau
I try to be mindful, at all times, of what a difference a small human gesture can make to people in need. Pictured left to right: Hunter Biden, Neilia Biden and infant daughter Naomi Biden, Joe Biden, and Beau Biden
I got the sense she didn’t quite believe I was entirely sincere. But I was. I have a long list of strangers who have my private number, and an invitation to call, and many of them do.
When we left after almost an hour, Liu’s father held on to me tightly, as if he could not bear to let me go. We stood there for a long while, embracing outside the house where he had lived with his only son. Just two fathers.
What I hadn’t told anyone then — apart from President Obama — was that the year before, my own elder son had been diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma tumour.
The median life span after diagnosis of this virulent brain cancer is 12-14 months. Maybe two people in 100, we learned, get to long-term tumour-free remission. But that means some people do beat it, we told ourselves. So why not Beau?
He certainly had a stalwart support system. His wife Hallie was a rock. She would keep their life on track, make sure their two children were well and safe.
His little sister Ashley would be there at his side during treatments, offering unconditional love.
My other son, Hunter, was Beau’s secret weapon. During his whole life, his mission had been to protect his brother. They’d always been there for each other, from the time they were little boys, and nothing had changed. It just was more intense now.
‘You know I’d trade places with you if I could, Beau,’ Hunt told him the day his brother had surgery. And we all knew he meant that, literally.
Beau was determined to fight —odds be damned. Right after the diagnosis, he ran a marathon. And he opted for the most aggressive treatment possible – surgery, radiotherapy, triple the amount of the standard chemotherapy drug.
Meanwhile, I was under strict orders never to betray worry in front of anybody.
My story precedes me and people know I have a sense of the depth of their pain. Pictured: Joe Biden with his sons Hunter (left) and Beau (right)
At 45, Beau was already a rising star in Democratic politics. He was just about to finish his second term as attorney general of Delaware and had already stated his intention to run for governor in 2016.
I was pretty sure he could run for president some day and that with Hunter’s help as his trusted adviser and speechwriter, he could win.
So when Barack and I won re-election back in 2012, I had started thinking hard about stepping aside after the second term and shifting the family’s focus to Beau’s political future.
By the end of 2014, he had already exceeded the average survival time for somebody with glioblastoma multiforme.
He was, however, losing feeling in his right hand. Additionally, radiation and chemotherapy had damaged the part of his brain that controlled the ability to name things, so he was struggling to recall proper nouns.
Then in February 2015, Beau’s doctor called to say the cancer cells were multiplying fast, and in new places. When I got off the phone, Jill and I just stared at each other, and embraced.
There was more aggressive treatment ahead, including surgery, immunotherapy and the injection of a specially engineered live virus to activate Beau’s immune system. He would be the first person ever to have this combined treatment, and the risk was enormous. I found out only later from the medical professionals that Beau never showed fear and never sagged. He wanted the doctors to throw everything at him they possibly could. He kept reassuring them he could handle it.
At our weekly private lunches in the Oval Office, Barack would often ask me about Beau. As I explained to him that the next procedures were uncharted territory, but our only hope, I looked up and found him in tears.
Barack is not a demonstrative man, in public or in private, and I felt bad. I found myself trying to console him. ‘Life is so difficult to discern,’ he said.
What I hadn’t told anyone — apart from President Obama — was that the year before, my own elder son had been diagnosed with a stage 4 glioblastoma tumour. Pictured: Joe and Beau Biden
At another of our lunches, I confided in Barack that Jill and I were thinking of taking out a second mortgage on our house to help out because Beau was no longer working.
‘Don’t do that,’ Barack said, with a force that surprised me. He got up out of his chair, walked around behind me and put his hands on my shoulders. ‘I’ll give you the money. I have it. You can pay me back whenever.’
Over the next few weeks, it became ever clearer to me that Hunter was the crucial beam in Beau’s support structure. He was at all the scans, standing at the corner of the MRI machine, so he could rub Beau’s foot and talk to him, keeping him calm.
Whatever Beau asked for — water, fruit, a sandwich — Hunter ran for it, so his brother did not have to wait. He crawled into bed with Beau just to be near him. And he was there to put his arms around his brother in the moments before Beau went into surgery.
That night in bed I said my rosary, and made a special plea to Neilia and my mom: ‘Please. Please. Look out for Beau. And give me the strength to handle whatever happens.’ Two days after surgery, Beau was up and walking; his spirits were high.
But all too soon, the swelling in his brain began to intensify and the doctors had to keep him heavily sedated.
Somebody from the family was at Beau’s bedside constantly. We kept telling ourselves he would turn the corner. Could be any day now. There was still hope.
What I felt, most of all, was helpless. I did what I could, which was to visit early in the morning most days, before I started my official schedule, and again every night when I was done.
Even now, I remember every step and every turn in that hospital: the straight walk through a quiet marble corridor, the right turn and transit across an intersection of two hallways, then the left into the elevator, and the ride to the second floor.
I’d exit the elevator and make a hard left, then stop at the nurses’ station to greet the team on duty and thank them for all they were doing.
I tried not to dwell on the sights to the left of the station, where the rooms were full of patients who were not going to make it. That was not going to be my son, I’d tell myself as I headed to the right, toward Beau’s room at the corner.
The median life span after diagnosis of this virulent brain cancer is 12-14 months. Maybe two people in 100, we learned, get to long-term tumour-free remission. Pictured: Joe Biden visits a family grave on Election morning
And just before I got there, I would begin to psych myself up. Smile, I’d say to myself. Smile. Smile. Smile. One night, I told Beau that Elton John had been at the White House that day. Beau’s eyes were closed, but I could tell he heard me.
‘You remember when I used to drive you and Hunt to school?’ I said. ‘That song we would all sing together, the three of us, as loud as we could? Crocodile Rock.’
The boys were four and five when that song was big, when it was just the three of us. After Neilia died, but before I met Jill.
I started singing the lyrics to Beau, quietly, so just the two of us could hear it. But after the first few lines, I started to get emotional and wasn’t sure if I could go on.
Beau didn’t open his eyes, but I could see through my own tears that he was smiling. So I gathered myself and kept at it, for as much of the song as I could remember.
As his condition deteriorated, I was trapped for days in the patient waiting room, which the White House communications team converted into a private space where I could make secure calls.
There was a new crisis in Iraq one day, and it needed my attention. For the first time I felt resentful that I had to divert focus to anything other than Beau. My son was in one room in extremis and I was sitting in another, forced to deal with a problem 6,200 miles away.
Once, Barack Obama invited me to play golf. He was worried about me, he explained, and hoped to distract me for a few hours. Jill encouraged me to go. The worst part is, I can’t even remember whether or not I went.
Another morning, I couldn’t get out of my head the dream I’d had the night before. Beau had appeared to me, completely cured, his old self again. The image was so vivid and felt so real: he was off in the distance, finishing one of his regular runs.
I was trying desperately to find Jill to share the amazing news. ‘I saw Beau running!’ I wanted to shout. ‘I saw Beau running!’
Not long afterwards, he had a bad night, and by the next afternoon, he was barely responsive.
As his condition deteriorated, I was trapped for days in the patient waiting room, which the White House communications team converted into a private space where I could make secure calls. Pictured: Beau Biden with Joe’s second wife Jill
What was happening in his brain was no longer reversible, the doctors said. There was no saving Beau. ‘He will not recover.’
These were the most devastating four words I have ever heard in my life.
Beau’s kids arrived at the hospital that evening. The Secret Service agents, many of whom had been with our family for more than six years, bowed their heads and stared at the marble floor, or turned away, so nobody would see them weeping as Natalie and Hunter went by.
Nobody left the hospital that night. We waited, all of us, together. Hunter left the floor briefly, just after 7pm, to pick up food for the family. And not long afterwards, Beau’s breathing appeared to stop. There was no heartbeat registering on the monitor.
When Hunter returned, he bent down to kiss his brother, and placed his hand over Beau’s heart. Beau’s heart started beating again.
It didn’t last long.
May 30. 7.51pm. ‘It happened,’ I recorded in my diary. ‘My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.’
Jill and I landed in Delaware on Air Force Two at about 8pm the next evening. As soon as we got home, she wanted to go to our dock on the lake by the house, so we walked over with our German shepherd.
There was still light in the sky, and she spotted a white egret at the far edge of the water. It made her feel more connected to Beau, she said, being at a place he loved so deeply.
And she told me that at one point, in the final hours, she had leaned in and whispered to him, ‘Go to a happy place, Beau. Go to the dock, with Hunter.’
We watched the egret for 20 minutes, until it finally took flight. The two of us sat in silence as the egret circled overhead repeatedly, slowly gaining altitude, until it finally headed away to the south, beneath the clouds, and gradually disappeared from sight.
When Hunter returned, he bent down to kiss his brother, and placed his hand over Beau’s heart. Beau’s heart started beating again. It didn’t last long. May 30. 7.51pm. ‘It happened,’ I recorded in my diary. ‘My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.’ Pictured: Joe and Jill Biden with son Beau and his wife Hallie in 2012
Jill went in to bed not long after and I ended up alone in a newly wallpapered room where books and mementos had been shoved into open boxes.
I needed something to do to keep my mind occupied, so I started emptying some of the boxes and replacing the books — methodically, by subject matter — on the shelves.
The last box I grabbed held some pages from scrapbooks and old family photos. The photograph on top of the pile fluttered out; it was of Beau.
He was probably eight or nine, in sneakers and shorts, walking through the hedgerows at the house I bought soon after Neilia died.
In the photo, Beau was walking away from me, looking over his shoulder, smiling and waving.
I was suddenly overwhelmed. I had not seen that photo in at least three decades, but it was the age I always pictured him in my mind. Always smiling at me, with that look of reassurance.
Beau could always chase my fears away. He had saved my life, along with Hunter, 40 years ago, after Neilia and Naomi died in the car accident, and now what was I supposed to do?
Like me, Beau was a public figure, so I knew he would have to be celebrated, and mourned, in public.
Barack offered to do the main eulogy — an offer we accepted.
I’m still moved by the extraordinary depth of his emotion in his eulogy for Beau. ‘Michelle and I and Sasha and Malia, we’ve become part of the Biden clan, we’re honorary members now,’ he said. ‘And the Biden family rule applies: We’re always here for you. We always will be. My word as a Biden.’
When Beau’s siblings ascended to the altar there was an absolute hush. They were in such pain, and summoning composure required remarkable courage. ‘It’s impossible to talk about Beau without talking about Hunter,’ Ashley told the gathering. ‘Hunter was the wind beneath Beau’s wings. Hunt gave him the courage and the confidence to fly . . .
‘There wasn’t one decision where Hunter wasn’t consulted first, not one day that passed where they didn’t speak . . .
‘When I was born, I was welcomed with open arms and held tightly by both Beau-y and Hunt-y, as I adoringly called them my whole life. The boys named me. I was theirs and I felt as though they were mine.’
Then Hunter stepped up to the microphone.
‘The first memory I have is of lying in a hospital bed next to my brother,’ he began, recounting the days they were together in 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 42 years since, he never stopped holding my hand, he never stopped telling me just how much he loves me. 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.”
Beau could always chase my fears away. He had saved my life, along with Hunter, 40 years ago, after Neilia and Naomi died in the car accident, and now what was I supposed to do? Pictured: Joe Biden comforts his grandaughter Natalie at his son Beau’s funeral
‘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.’
I am blessed with a magnificent family. When one of us started to lose composure, there was always somebody there for support.
‘C’mon, Dad,’ Hunt would say when he saw my shoulders start to shake.
As when I lost Neilia and Naomi 43 years earlier, it felt like there was a tiny dark hole in the middle of my chest, and I knew if I dwelled on its presence, it would grow until it threatened to suck my entire being down into it. There were times when it seemed easier to just disappear into that void, into the merciful absence of pain. I remember not being able to take a long, deep breath for months.
Of all the heartfelt condolences I received, one stood out. It happened at the public wake in Wilmington, Delaware, on the day before the funeral mass.
I was there with Jill and the rest of the family for hours, standing by Beau’s casket, as thousands of friends, acquaintances and supporters filed by.
At one point, I looked up and saw approaching me Wei Tang Liu, the father of the police officer who had been killed five months earlier.
He and his wife had made the three-hour drive from their home in Brooklyn, then stood for hours in a line that snaked for blocks.
Wei Tang Liu did not try to speak, and neither did I.
He still didn’t have the English, and I still didn’t have the Cantonese. He just walked up and gave me a hug.
It meant so much to me to be in the embrace of somebody who understood. He held on to me, silently, and wouldn’t let go. This was not, as it had been the last time we met, for him. This was for me.
‘Thank you’ was all I could say. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’
Adapted by Corinna Honan from Promise Me, Dad: A Year Of Hope, Hardship And Purpose by Joe Biden, published by Pan at £8.99. © Joe Biden 2017.
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