It’s the day after Joe Biden has been named president-elect and I’m in a cafe, the kind with communal tables where you can’t help but tune into the conversation next to you. On one side, someone is talking fishing tackle, on the other a daughter is consoling her mother over the death of her husband. I can’t help but lean across and impart the wisdom that I never wanted to acquire, but have as a cancer widow at 32 - that there is a way through, a way to build a life around loss. Just look at Joe Biden. “Oh Joe,” she says, “Yes, he’s given me a lot of hope.”
Joe’s first wife, Neilia and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash in December 1972, a month after he had been elected senator of Delaware. They had so much ahead of them, so much to live for, obliterated in an instant by a wayward tractor-trailer. The couple’s sons, Beau and Hunter, survived with Beau following his father into politics and considered a potential presidential candidate, before he was diagnosed with brain cancer and passed away at 46.
My husband, Cam, was on the brink of something wonderful too when our dreams were swept from us. He had just landed a creative job at a film company in New Zealand, when vague nausea and weight loss were diagnosed as stage 4 gallbladder cancer. Slight symptoms gave way to severe ones; Cam put up a gracious fight but died within months, just after his 34th birthday.
The months after Cam’s death coincided with Joe’s campaign to the White House. A 77-year-old man soon became my 32-year-old role model. Four years earlier, the chips were down and Joe had counted himself out of the presidential race. He’d come so far but, in the wake of Beau’s death, looked destined to never quite cross the finish line into presidency. Hillary would run, as cancer’s randomness and disregard for good timing meant Joe’s self-proclaimed window to campaign had closed.
It didn’t look like Joe would strike back, and it certainly feels that way in times of monumental loss. It’s hard to be enthused by elections, or have the energy for anything in the world when the person you love is no longer in it. For me, Trump’s presidency through coronavirus only heightened my distrust in the world; it felt a place of pain and loss.
In a 2015 speech, Joe recounted what his mother told him after the death of his wife and daughter: “Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it. She was right.” As a new widow, I have at times shot myself down, choosing inaction as armour; my default became assuming things were or would be impossible. I have narrowed my world and pitied myself, which is certainly not what Cam would have wanted and has not been the best way to honour him, with a closed mind and a closed heart. But, if one man can lose his wife, his daughter and his son, and still find the positive, then so can I.
Joe came back, and it wasn’t in spite of his loss but because of it. Where Beau wouldn’t get a chance to run for presidency, Joe could. He promised his son he would stay engaged and he took on the ultimate engagement with style and vigour – a presidential race that he fought and won.
This year, I lost my husband and I bet you’ve lost something too, a job, time, freedom, normality. Joe knows loss and this enables him to see suffering behind statistics. As final ballots are being counted, Joe has swiftly announced a coronavirus task force to reduce the number of “empty chairs at the dinner table”, a grim reality that reverberates so deeply in his heart.
Good doesn’t always come out on top but, more often than not, it finds a way through. I believe Joe Biden is a good man. The world needs this antidote, someone who represents hope and will govern with empathy, decency and kindness at its core. A person who, when everything was taken away, dug deep and found a way up. A person who can inspire us to do the same.
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