Newsletter 156: Grief, Terror and Joe Biden

I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one’s from April 2019, about the nightmares that come to your mind when you are a parent.

About three years ago, I made plans to take my son William to a Braves game. He was four years old then and just starting to get obsessed with baseball. He fell asleep reading the Cardinals media guide, the first thing he’d ask me every morning was if he could watch “Quick Pitch,” he kept tally of how many hits and all of his teammates had in T-ball. He’d caught the bug, a little earlier than I did as a kid, and it provided me near-infinite levels of joy. It still does, though he no longer asks if he can watch “Quick Pitch.” He just gets up early and turns it on.

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This particular Sunday, we were heading to Atlanta to watch the Braves plays the Cubs, which is why we all decked out in our Cardinals best. (We need to let the enemy know our eyes are on them at all times.) The morning had gotten off to a bit of a slow start, and we were in a bit of a rush to get out of the house in time. We’d packed all we’d need for the game, the sunscreen, the sunglasses, the extra water bottles, all the little break-glass-in-case-of fiddles and dinwiddies you need when you’re going to be away from home with a four-year-old all day. We scrambled to get everything ready and in the right place and the right bag, and then I strapped William in the car seat of his mother’s car, a silver Toyota Rav4 we’d bought from my wife’s mom when we first moved to Athens in the summer of 2013. I lease my own cars, and the lease was almost up, and you have a mile restriction when you lease cars, and I’d already hit mine, so hey honey I’m gonna take your car I’ll fill it up with gas holler if you need me to stop by the store on my way home.

I was in a hurry. The game was in two hours, it’s a 90 minute drive, and you know how parking can be and how security is at baseball games these days. Gotta go gotta go gotta go. William had been sitting out in the running, air-conditioned Rav4 for about 10 minutes as I gathered everything, and after finally packing everything up and stuffing it in the Rav4, I grabbed my wallet and my sunglasses and hustled out the door to the car port. We really might be late. I hate being late to things, particularly baseball games.

Settling into the drivers seat and readying to leave, I took out my phone and realized I’d forgotten to plug it in after my run that morning, leaving it inadequately charged for a full day at a ballpark. There’s a plug-in in the back of the Rav4, but when I reached back there, the cord that’s usually there wasn’t, so I had to take one more trip inside. I cursed to myself and opened the door to go in and grab the charger, running behind the car, around the car port and inside the side door one more time. Dammitwe’re latewhere’sthatcord. Gotta go gotta go gotta go.

As I ran behind the Rav4, I noticed something: It was moving.

In my hurry, I had not realized that I had already put the car in Reverse to back out of our driveway and, even more in a hurry to grab the charger, I had not put it back. And so the car was still moving backward. We live right on a rather busy road here in Athens, one that’s a feeder onto campus right off the interstate that runs into town; it’s a well-trafficked enough street that there are multiple speed bumps meant to slow reckless college students coming back into town from the interstate, letting them know you’re back among residential civilization now. You met the first speed bump just after you reach our house. Which means you’re going by our place fast.

And now my wife’s Rav4 was heading backwards toward that street, without a driver, with my four-year-old. son strapped into the back seat, happily drinking his chocolate milk and reading a college football preview magazine.

I sprinted toward back around the car and grabbed the door handle.

In my nightmares, it’s locked, and the keys are inside, and I can’t do anything.

In the real world, thank God, it was unlocked, and I leapt in the car and slammed on the brake. In my rush to stop the car, I hadn’t shut the door, and we hadn’t entirely made it out of the car port, so it slammed into a brick railing and was ripped partly off its hinges.

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But the car was stopped. I put it in Park and looked back at William. He hadn’t noticed a thing. “Are we ready to go, Daddy?” I sat there, looked at him and tried not to weep.

There are nights when, three years later, I still stay awake at night thinking about that day. I stare at the ceiling, into the abyss.

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This week, Joe Biden entered the Presidential race. Joe Biden was the Vice President of the United States for eight years and has been living in the public eye for longer than I have been alive. Joe Biden is a politician, and a candidate, one with virtues and flaws and reasons for praise and reasons for derision, like every other person on the planet. I do not yet know if I will vote for him, and he has clear blind spots in his perspective, but he is someone I admire, someone I have always admired.

And he has faced pain like few ever have. As Politico put it, “the long arc of Biden’s career is all but bracketed by tragedy.” He was elected to the Senate in November 1972. One month later, before he was sworn in, his wife and their three children were bringing home a family Christmas tree when a driver (who, unlike Biden would later claim through his grief, was not drunk) smashed into the family station wagon. It killed Biden’s wife and his 13-month-old daughter, and severely injured his two sons, Beau, 3, and Hunt, 2. (Beau had “a slew” of broken bones, and Hunt had massive head trauma.) He had the perfect life and three people he loved in a way you never can understand until you love that way. And in an instant it was gone.

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In his book Promise to Keep, Biden wrote, “I felt trapped in a constant twilight of vertigo, like in the dream where you’re suddenly falling … only I was constantly falling. … I began to understand how despair led people to just cash it in; how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option. But I’d look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too. And I knew had no choice but to fight to stay alive.”

Nearly four years ago, Beau, an Iraq war veteran and attorney general of the state of Delaware, died of brain cancer, with his father and the rest of his family at his side. Biden’s statement was simple and devastating: “Beau Biden was, quite simply, the finest man any of us have ever known.” Two years later, Biden would talk openly about Beau’s death on Stephen Colbert’s show. The pain and grief on his face was haunting and moving and, more than anything, deeply, profoundly human. It was as authentic as anything I have ever seen from such a public figure.

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Joe Biden has suffered the most horrific loss anyone could possibly imagine. His courage in reconstructing his life, his ability to take solace in his faith, his willingness to help others who have suffered similar or even worse losses, is heartbreaking and incredibly powerful. My mother, a fellow Catholic like Biden, who has taken solace in her own grief through Biden’s example, considers him a personal hero. I don’t know if she has ever voted for him. But it’s about more than that. His book sits by her bedside still today.

I do not know if I am going to vote for Joe Biden, if he is the best person to run this country, to eject the ever-increasing terror show currently in the White House. He has made many mistakes, political and otherwise, in his long public life. He deserves some of the criticism he has received, and it is a legitimate question whether he is the right person for this particular political moment. He has a lot of work to do, and I’m not sure he’s had the best start.

But if you cannot admire Joe Biden, I do not know what to say to you. His loss is unfathomable — the worst thing that can happen to a human being. Yet here he still is. Joe Biden has many flaws. We all do. But he has gone through the worst of it. And still he stands. He has been to the abyss; in many ways, he is still there, and always will be. Millions see in him a figure of strength, and courage. They should. We all should. I still shake every time I think of that Sunday in our car port, and nothing actually happened other than the need for a new drivers-side door. Biden has seen the worst. He’s lived the unimaginable. So many have. And onward yet they still go.

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Written by

Writer, New York, NYT, MLB, WaPo, others. Founder, Deadspin. Author of four books, with fifth, “How Lucky,” coming May 2021. https://williamfleitch.substack.com

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