It was just after noon Friday when a hole opened in the gray clouds above the Little Italy neighborhood in Wilmington and the sun began to burn off the drizzle and haze surrounding the sidewalks by St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church. Across the street from the church several residents of The Antonian, a senior citizen apartment building, sat on lawn chairs set up in the shade of elm trees that acted as an awning against the coming afternoon heat while hundreds stood in a long line that stretched for blocks down West 10th Street waiting for Beau Biden’s wake to begin.
The sound of motorcycles ruffled the thick air as several police vehicles came up West 9th and stopped near the main entrance to St. Anthony’s, a sprawling stone cathedral with stained glass windows and a red Mediterranean shingle roof. A hearse followed the motorcycles and then an honor guard gently lifted a casket from the hearse and carried it down the center aisle of the church.
Just after 1 o’clock, the Biden family arrived, a large sprawling Irish Catholic unit of one as familiar here as the waters of the Delaware River. They were led by Joe Biden wearing aviator sunglasses, dark blue suit, white shirt, stripe tie and a soft, gentle face that alternated between sadness and a forced smile of habit. Within minutes, he was in front of the altar, standing straight as a sentry, an arm’s length from the flag-draped casket containing the soul and spirit of Beau Biden, his oldest boy.
He was the Vice President of the United States but here in the heart of Wilmington he was simply Joe, again a grieving parent grinding his way through a day in a life that was one more bead of The Sorrowful Mysteries of the Rosary.
“They’re here I think,” Agnes Daughtery told her sister Elma.
“The line will start to move now,” her sister replied.
The two women had been standing on West 10th alongside the church for nearly an hour waiting for the family to arrive. They drove down from the Philadelphia suburbs and parked in a lot three blocks away on Pennsylvania Avenue by Grotto Pizza.
“Soon as we got out of the car a woman said to us, ‘You can’t park there. Customers park there,’” Agnes Daughtery said. “But when we told her why we were here, for Beau Biden’s wake, she said, ‘Ohmigod, I’m sorry. Sure. Leave it there, honey.’”
Twenty yards away, at the top of West 10th, people came through the magnetometers placed beneath a long white tent top. Many of them were dignitaries, senators and members of Congress, familiar faces from the national media and all were ushered past the long line toward the front entrance of the church. The line in front of Agnes Daughtery did not move as the sun began to dominate the day.
Now it was close to 2:30 p.m. and she and her sister had made it to the steps that led up to the school gym that is connected to the parish elementary school. Many in front of and behind her were simply there out of loyalty and devotion and friendship with the grieving family. They had come from different places and different distance; from Washington, from Scranton, Baltimore, Philadelphia, down the street, across town and they comprised a militia of the mournful, standing in the heat of the day, simply waiting to offer the young man’s parents, his wife, his children, his brother and sister, aunts, uncles, nephews and nieces their condolences for a life lost too young and a family asked to bear nearly too much.
They wore suits and dark dresses, jeans, khakis, short sleeve shirts, sneakers and dress shoes. They were as American a gathering as the eye will ever encounter and they were quiet, respectful, patient and heartbroken as the line snaked slowly up 14 steps and formed a serpentine unit as it twisted into the relief of the shade inside the school gymnasium.
The crowd was the core, the heart, soul and foundation of support and solace for a promising future taken and a parent who has remained amazingly human and normal while surrounded by trappings of power and prestige. Joe Biden is an emotional man and, now, as the hours passed and the crowds did not diminish he found strength and comfort in each person as they slowly, very slowly, made their way toward the altar, the casket and a whole, proud family that carried loss with both dignity and gratitude for who Beau Biden was and what he’s accomplished in 46 years.
“Look at all the championships,” Agnes Daughtery said to her sister, pointing to the pennants hanging on the gym wall.
“The Tigers,” Elma said, indicating the school team’s nickname. “I guess they’re pretty good.”
The pennants were black and orange. They honored more than a decade’s worth of victories in girl’s volleyball, boy’s baseball and individual honors as well. Quotes from Knute Rockne, John Wooden and Lou Holtz had been stitched on flag-like cloths and hung alongside the pennants.
It took an hour and a half for the line to snake through the gym and back outdoors to the terrace next to a side entrance of the church. It was just past 4 p.m. now and a soft breeze brought some relief to the waiting crowd. Many of the men had removed their jackets and more than a few people left the line to sit on benches set beneath a tent top outside the gym, the benches and tables arranged for the beginning of the annual St. Anthony’s Italian Festival scheduled to begin Sunday.
A Catholic wake is part remembrance, part devotion and a permanent gesture of friendship, respect and love for the departed as well as the living left with memories and broken hearts. There is unity and strength in grief.
By 5 p.m. both sisters had made it to the narrow steps of the church’s side entrance. There, they could see and hear the Vice President of the United States as he greeted the hundreds who circled along the side aisle of the church and down the center aisle to the waiting family.
Joe Biden would stand there from his arrival at 1 p.m. until the last of the mourners left shortly after 11 p.m. Friday. He was a swirl of emotion, never leaving his dead son’s side. His family stood there with him.
He seemed to get stronger as he grasped the hand of each visitor. Within him, his son Beau still lived. In his eyes and in his mind, he could see still the boy, Beau, in a hospital bed alongside his brother Hunter, both of them nearly killed in a car crash that took their mother and baby sister in the winter of 1972, weeks after he had been first elected to the United States Senate. He could see himself playing catch with his boys, writing letters to them as they were hospitalized and, later, as they marched bravely through a life shattered already by loss. He saw his son riding the train with him to Washington and back, saw himself walking through the door at the end of nearly every day to talk with them about school, about supper, about the road ahead. He was, for Beau, for all his children, for his whole family, the embodiment of the religious hymn, “Be Not Afraid.”
Now it was nearly 5:30 p.m. and the sisters stood 20 feet from the altar, the casket and the Biden family. In front of them, Joe Biden hugged a man who walked with the aid of a cane. He turned to his wife Jill and said, “I went to high school with this guy. He’s a barber. Used to cut my hair … when I had enough hair to cut. God love ya’, thanks for coming. It means a lot to me and our family.”
Agnes Daughtery and her sister Elma stood next in line. After six and a half hours they quietly summoned all their strength to offer their support and sorrow for a loss that seemed nearly unbearable to them. Joe Biden held their hand, hugged them both, thanked them for coming and kissed each woman on the cheek. They went next to Jill Biden, then Beau’s wife Hallie and then his brother Hunter. And then the two women walked down the side aisle and out of the church into the fading sunlight.
“How long have you known the Vice President?” Agnes Daughtery was asked.
“Well I don’t really know him,” she answered. “This was the first time I met him.”
“Really?” I said.
“Really,” she replied.
“And you stood in line all this time?” I said to her. “How come?”
“Because I love who he is,” she said. “He is a family man who knows what it’s like to lose something you love in life. I’ve always loved him. He’s one of us. He’s a normal person, not just a politician, and I’m proud to be here.”