Promise Me, Dad, Joe Biden
My mom has always told me that the worst pain in the world for a parent is to lose a child before they die, and it is one that I will not be able to come close to imagining until I have kids of my own.
While my mom may be right, I got a glimpse of that pain through Joe Biden’s walk with his son through his end. In a deeply honest and moving narrative, he parallels the trials of his vice presidency and presidential candidacy with the challenges of being father and friend to his son, Beau, as he fights and passes away from brain cancer. Yet, not to diminish Beau’s story, I found that the most beautiful story in Biden’s book took up less than two pages together, which framed the start and end of his journey with Beau.
In one of the first chapters of his book, Biden describes his visit to pay his respects to the parents of a Chinese American cop who had been killed on duty. Beau has not been diagnosed yet, and this story brings particular focus to the father of the cop, Wei Tang. During Biden’s visit, Wei Tang does not leave his side, saying “thank you” over and over in broken English and insisting on walking him out when he leaves. Joe Biden describes their farewell: “He didn’t have the English to express it to me, and I didn’t have the Cantonese to understand him. When Wei Tang gave me a final hug in front of his house, in front of the line of policemen standing guard, he held on to me tightly, for a long time, as if he could not bear to let me go. … I understood all that he wanted me to know - or thought I did.”
Later, Biden does go on to painfully and intimately understand that. However, the story comes full circle in a way that foreshadows Biden’s own resolution and closure that comes at the end of his book. Biden recalls from his son’s funeral, “At one point, I looked up and saw in the line, approaching me … Wei Tang Liu did not try to speak, and neither did I. He 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. … ‘Thank you’ was all I could say. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’”
When I read this story, I could not help but recognize the beauty in death. Do not get me wrong - death and its reality can be ugly. However, I found something profoundly beautiful about this image of two fathers, perhaps an otherwise odd pair of grown men, brought together by grief and sharing something deeper than what might have been said in words. Though loss reminds us that death is the end for all of us, while we live, it is a common language that brings together disparate stories.
My Wei Tang after my dad passed away was a church pastor who had recently lost his own baby. We became fast friends after connecting over the gaping hole in our hearts that only people who have lost truly understand. I remember one day sharing with him my struggle of not being able to get back to who I had been before my dad passed away. I will never forget his response. He told me that maybe it was okay if I landed as a different person. It just meant that my dad’s death had changed me and I was not the same person as I was before I lost my dad, and that was not a bad thing. In sharing those words, he helped me see death not as a disruption to the story of life, but a natural part of its course that shapes us.
Death is a great story writer. Not in the way of obituaries, but in the stories to come. We humans like to think of history as one long story of progress in which the present is always better than the past, but death manages to brings us back to the same place every time. That does not make it antithetical to progress. Rather, the dying have always left behind the living, and loss is a sacred moment in time that opens possibilities for a new Joe Biden and Wei Tang who, across time and space, hug and say, “Thank you, thank you, thank you”, and understand. They write a new story that blends into the weaves of history, to be revisited and built upon again and again.