He was a wounded man walking in a wounded city, the wounds for both never really fully healing, the scab always there, always liable to be pulled open by the simplest of things: a phrase, a memory, a song, a visit to a place once shared by those loved and lost.
Joe Biden arrived at Rescue 1 on West 43rd Street Friday afternoon wearing a blue blazer, light-blue open-collar shirt, tan slacks and a bright smile that could not hide the cargo of damage the Vice President carries each day. It was September 11th as he stood in a house where the ghosts of 11 firefighters lost on that date 14 years ago still report for daily duty.
Biden is on a journey taken by many, many others and he knows he is not alone. It is a long, never-ending odyssey that begins with grief and proceeds through a slow, torturous path filled with images of the dead complete with vivid dreams where the departed speak and the days can be filled with moments when you feel cold and alone even while surrounded by crowds eager to shake your hand.
His journey, of course, has been quite public.
The Vice President of the United States is an unusual man in a sour business spoiled by oceans of money, colossal egos, politicians who lean on pollsters and handlers before uttering a single sentence rather than rely on their own soul or common sense. He is, despite the trappings of his office, an actual human being.
He laughs. He cries. He makes eye contact. He hugs. He touches and is touched by many he meets. He listens and he hears. He is not wealthy. He is most comfortable sitting on the porch of his house in Wilmington, Delaware, his family within reach. He is a politician yet his principal role in life is tribal leader, there for those who need him, his wife, children, grandchildren, the Bidens.
In New York the other day, the crowd attending the Stephen Colbert show chanted, “Run, Joe, run” as he and Colbert had a conversation about loss, faith and the future on national television. There was not a single contrived moment in the appearance.
It was simply two men, both knowing what it’s like to have a thief called death steal a piece of your heart forever. The hurt never goes away. The memory of those taken might diminish a bit but never entirely disappears. The task then is to wallow in grief or just get up and get on with living.
So this is what Joe Biden wrestles with today. Does he have the energy to hurl himself into an exercise—a run for president—that could end up in a loss? Does he have the drive, the will to raise millions from strangers? A somewhat humiliating task for a proud guy. Can he tolerate the loneliness of the long campaign, the travel, the three-cities-a-day routine, the speeches, the fundraisers, the distance from that house in Wilmington?
He wears his heart on his sleeve and his rosary around his wrist. His story is well known. The politics of personal tragedy have pulled Joe Biden out of the shadows in the late autumn of his career and into the glare of a potential contest with Hillary Clinton, who appears to be the direct opposite of the Vice President: stage-managed, rehearsed, mechanical, accomplished but always cautious, somewhat duplicitous, often secretive and entitled.
In the weeks and months since his son died Joe Biden has gotten up. It is something he is used to doing, having done it a couple times before. And he’s out there at stops like Rescue 1 where people who expect plastic in politicians are enthused, excited and grateful to meet someone who is the real deal, a guy who might live down the block.
His burden is internal, a sadness that even his nearly perpetual smile cannot hide. His gift though is his big heart and the fact that he has managed to lead a fairly normal life despite being a senator and a vice president. He’s made choices all of us have made: The mortgage or the tuition? What time is the kid’s game being played? Are the lights out all over the neighborhood or did I forget to pay the utility bill?
Like most of us, Joe Biden has had moments when he’s led the league in mistakes or verbal gaffes. The difference is his were on a public stage where explanations are almost always made out by pundits to be excuses.
As the afternoon wore on, the Vice President headed to LaGuardia where Air Force 2 was parked on the runway by the Marine Air Terminal. Joe Biden, carrying his sorrow, his optimism, his enthusiasm along with all his memories, boarded the plane for a flight to Wilmington, Delaware. Not Washington, D.C.; Wilmington, because that’s where he lives. That’s where his family lives. That’s his home.
Who knows what he’ll decide to do. I bet he doesn’t know.