Time is a relentless, merciless adversary. It steals the years, quickly, silently. It takes a step from your gait, adds a few seconds between retrieval of names, faces and often momentarily puts the mental box score of the life you’ve lived in the rear view mirror.
Joe Biden is 77 years old. Nearly everyone is familiar with the life he’s led, the life that has offered position, prestige, power and unfathomable loss. Through it all, with it all, he endures and does not forget.
In 1972 he ran for the United States Senate and won. He was 29 on election day. He had a crew of young people working for him. One of them was a young guy from Boston, Charlie Kenney, who came from a family of firefighters.
Memory. It’s a funny thing. Some events and some people just pass through making no mark. Some others remain vivid across the decades.
So it is a sunny summer day, Aug. 20, 2012, 40 years after that 29-year-old was first elected to the Senate, and Charlie Kenney was home by himself when the phone rang. His wife and daughter were away on a brief vacation. As he answered the phone he had no idea that the rest of his life would be quite different, leaving him with a hole in his heart that would never heal.
“It’s amazing,” he recalled the other day. “It’s not like you suffer for a while and then you don’t. Your grief becomes your DNA.”
His son, their only boy, 2nd Lt. Charles Kenney, five days from shipping out to Afghanistan with the 7th Marines, had suffered a heart seizure while visiting his girlfriend and her parents in Bethesda, Maryland. Dead at 25 years old.
Now, back in Boston, the father, phone in hand, alone in the house, stunned, collapsing in disbelief and agony, called his best friend. Tom Vallely and Charlie Kenney had known one another for decades and Vallely had worked on Joe Biden’s ill-fated 1988 campaign for president.
After helping his friend with the toughest call of all to his wife and daughter before informing others of young Charlie’s death, Vallely called John Kerry and asked him to try and reach the vice president of the United States in the hope that Joe Biden might remember the young campaign worker from 1972, maybe send him a note from someone who for four decades had worn the type of pain that now assaulted Charlie Kenney’s whole being.
Toward dusk that day, Charlie’s phone rang again.
“He said, ‘Charlie, this is Joe Biden,’” Kenney recalled. “I’ll never forget it for the rest of my life. He talked to me for about 10 minutes, about the loss of my son, about my boy and he said, ‘We have lost one of America’s future leaders.’ He made me realize, right then, that my son mattered. He lifted me up.”
Over the years Biden has made a lot of phone calls like that to a lot of people suffering, barely coping with loss. Yet he would be the first to admit that this is not the reason to vote for him and it is not the reason he should be president.
That rests now more than ever in the simple fact of who he is every single day: A decent man who understands loss at a time in America’s life when so many have lost so much; jobs, income, homes, hope, and loved ones, along with faith in our country, our institutions of government, schools that can’t open, stores that never will again.
“So when I think about him today,” Charlie Kenney was saying, “I think… at the age of 29 he loses his wife and infant daughter and he almost loses both his boys. And then nearly 50 years later when he’s 72 years old he loses his son. It’s unimaginable. And he has traveled across all those years carrying those losses.”
Not a day goes by in Joe Biden’s life that he does not think, if only for a moment, a single second, about those lost to him. Anyone who has endured that type of pain—and that would be a majority of us—know that the main ways to counteract the lasting grief is to get up, get going, hold on to each day, define a purpose for living even if it is for others and open yourself and your heart to understanding that you are not alone.
So here he is, Joe Biden, on the edge of achieving an office he’s sought, dreamed of obtaining and has prepared for for years. He has a calm about him, a peace earned by living a life knowing that a knock on the door, a phone ringing in the night could arrive with an instant detour from the best of plans.
He carries a rosary in his pocket every single day. He is always asking, “Where’s Jill?” because no matter the crisis or controversy he is instinctively drawn toward home, toward roots, toward family, common sense and a crisp decision. He uses “We” to discuss success and “I” to define shortcomings.
Quick story to further define Joe Biden. My younger brother Paul, a retired Boston Police sergeant detective in the homicide unit, was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2017. When Joe Biden found out he called him and flew to Boston where he spent a couple hours talking to Paul and his daughter Nora. From the time they met until a week before Paul died in August 2018, Joe Biden called to check on his condition.
Now it’s Feb. 11, 2020, the day of the New Hampshire Primary and Biden is joining us as a guest on Morning Joe on MSNBC. He finished fourth in the Iowa caucus a week earlier and New Hampshire looked to be worse, and the candidate knew it too.
When he finished the TV segment I walked with him off stage, down a narrow hallway where a few people shook his hand and it reminded me of a receiving line at a wake. He was quiet, still smiling, accepting of what was going to happen that day, diminished a bit by the results but certainly not defeated.
When we got to the end of the hallway he turned, put his hands on my shoulders, looked me in the eye and said, “How are your brother’s kids doing? They holding up okay? Should I call his daughter?”
No lights. No camera. No reporter jotting notes. Just Joe Biden, candidate for president of the United States of America.