Promise Me, Dad:
A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose
by joe biden
flatiron books, 272 pages, $27
Many politicians’ memoirs are extended stump speeches, padded out with policy proposals and ingratiating biography. Few of them should be read with a hanky close at hand. But Joe Biden’s Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is an exceptional work in this genre. Biden’s book tells the story of his son Beau’s death from brain cancer, which occurred while Biden was serving as vice president and weighing a run against Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination.
If the passages on foreign policy feel like an interruption of the author’s personal story, he has more excuse than most memoirists. The reader experiences the same strange tensions Biden did, flying home from discussions about sending arms to Ukraine to join the doctors discussing what weapons were available for the fight taking place within his son’s body.
The Biden family are extraordinarily generous to each other. Early in his public life, Biden lost his wife and one-year-old daughter in a car crash. He and his sons had to take care of each other, and it’s clear the trio never stopped feeling responsible for each other. Every turning point, whether in Beau’s illness or in Biden’s political career, is marked by family meetings. I turned the pages, hoping that, if God grants me living children, my family might share the Bidens’ willingness to put family first. They’re so formed by their love for and reliance upon one another that they seem to run toward each other on instinct, no longer by active choice.
Sustained by his family’s love and his love for them, Biden can carry the weight of tragedy and offer it as a gift to others. At the beginning of the book, he describes visiting the family of Wenjian Liu, a police officer murdered on duty, and offering the widow his personal phone number. He tells her that there will come a time when she feels that all her friends have returned to normal life, and she doesn’t know whether she can or should reach out to them from the depths of her grief. If she feels that way, Biden tells her, she should call him.
His life never returned to “normal” after his loss of his wife and daughter, so he can meet the widow in the middle of her shattered “normal.” There’s no end to grief, Biden tells her, but life can become dappled with love as well as pain. He tells her that the sorrow never passes, but that there will be more and more moments when it is matched by joy in the memory of the lost one, and even moments when “[his] memory will bring a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes.”
Near the end of the book, after his son’s death, Biden barely needs words in order to be a comfort to others. He chooses to visit Emanuel AME Church (privately, without the press) after members of the parish were shot by a white supremacist. Biden writes, “This congregation was hurting and in need, and I knew my showing up so soon after my son’s death could be some source of strength for the Emanuel family.” He has learned that the public’s knowledge of his losses allows others to open up to him, free from the burden to be silent, stoic, or polite. He is a walking icon of Our Lady of Sorrows, offering the gift of tears.
But the heartbreaking thing about the book is that—for all Biden’s generosity to others in their mourning—his own family’s generosity and love seem to be somewhat thwarted, as they rally together to care for Beau.
The family is committed to keeping hope alive, to never discussing the possibility that Beau may succumb to the almost-certainly-lethal tumor in his brain. Beau chooses the most aggressive treatments, and the family resists ceding any ground to the disease—any modification of their lives or ambitions is viewed as a concession to the enemy, death.
Near what proves to be the end of Beau’s life, he is hospitalized, frequently disoriented, and suffering a cascade of complications. A Catholic priest stops by the room, to offer any help he can, and in Biden’s telling, “Jill thanked him for stopping by but asked him to please leave. And not to come back. She didn’t want Beau to get the idea he was there to perform last rites. In fact, there would be no discussion about last rites.”
And, ultimately, there were no last rites. The Bidens only talked openly about Beau’s impending death when the doctors told them that Beau, who was barely responsive, wouldn’t recover; at that point, they had to gather everyone to say goodbye. It was too late for Beau to make a last confession or prepare, spiritually and sacramentally, for death.
The Bidens, Beau included, remained committed to offering every hope but the one, eternal hope that cannot be taken away by cancer. The Bidens made a beautiful gift of themselves, to each other, to other people in pain. I cried while reading the book, awed by their love, but wished that they could have found a way to offer Beau a dappled hope: for this world and the next, without fearing they were betraying him.
I’m sure the Bidens aren’t the only family who fear that preparing for death means giving up. But love like the Bidens’ ought to be matched by the love God makes physical in the sacraments. Preparing for death is the fullest, fiercest expression of caring for our loved ones on earth.