Tuesday, November 24, 2020 4:30 pm
By Nehru Odeh
Though Joe Biden is currently hogging the limelight, not many know the pain behind his fame. Not many know the tragedies behind his celebrity status. Not many know the loss behind his gain. Not many know the troubles the man born in Delaware went through before becoming the president-elect of the most powerful nation in the world.
This is the story of the many hurdles he scaled through on his way to the top, the many personal tragedies of a man who once contemplated committing suicide because he felt “God had played a horrible trick” on him.
The question then is: how did this man whose family business collapsed when he was young dealt with his personal tragedies.
Here are some of the tragedies and how he dealt with them:
On 18 December 1972, a month after Biden became the 5th youngest U.S. senator, his wife Neilia and their three children were crushed by a tractor-trailer when they went Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware. Neila, who drove the Chevrolet station wagon and her 13-month-old Naomi died on the spot, while their two sons Beau (4) and Hunter (3) suffered serious injuries, a broken leg and fractured skull respectively. Biden became a single dad and had to take care of his two seriously injured sons.
Though sworn into the U.S. senate in the same room his sons were receiving treatment and recovering, Biden thought about taking his life. But realizing what it would do to his son if they lost both parents he knew he had to fight to stay alive. So he famously rode in a train back home from the office for four hours every night to read bedtime stories to his sons. Biden considered resigning from the senate but changed his mind when Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield, persuaded him not to.
Biden recounted his experience and how his boys saved him in a CNN documentary: “I thought about what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and just jump off and end it all,” Biden said. “But I didn’t ever get in the car and do it or wasn’t ever even close.”
“I don’t drink at all,” he also said. “I’ve never had a drink in my life, but I remember taking out a fifth of, I think it was gin, and put it on the kitchen table. But I couldn’t even make myself take a drink. What saved me was really my boys.
Biden, also said, knowing how fragile his state of mind was at the time, that he used to take walks in unsafe neighbourhoods around the hospital his sons were recovering in, looking for a fight.
“I liked to go at night when I thought there was a better chance of finding a fight,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir, Promises to Keep. “I was always looking for a fight. I had not known I was capable of such rage. I felt God had played a horrible trick on me.
“The first few days, I felt trapped in a constant twilight of vertigo, like in the dream where you’re suddenly falling … only I was constantly falling,” he also wrote. “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 I had no choice but to fight to stay alive.”
Tragedy struck Biden again in 2010 when Beau who had once survived a devastating accident at four, was admitted to Christiana Hospital in Newark, Delaware. He was 41 at the time. Then three years later, he was taken to MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston after suddenly feeling week and disoriented. He was given a clean bill of health after a small brain lesion was located and removed.
However, that was not the end of Beau’s woes. He was diagnosed with brain cancer and underwent several operations, chemotherapy and radiation. But he succumbed to the disease on 30 May 2015. He was 46.
In his 2015 Yale commencement speech, Biden once again spoke about how the love of his sons helped him persevere through tragedy.
“Many people have gone through things like that. But because I had the incredible good fortune of an extended family, grounded in love and loyalty, imbued with a sense of obligation imparted to each of us, I not only got help,” he said. “By focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.
“The incredible bond I have with my children is the gift I’m not sure I would have had, had I not been through what I went through,” he maintained.
Still, there seemed to be an uncanny build-up to the tragedies that defined his life. By the time Biden was born, his father suffered several financial setbacks so much so that the family had to live with his maternal grandparents. Because his father could not find steady work the family lived for several years in an apartment in Claymont, Delaware.
Biden also had a difficult childhood due to a debilitating stutter he had. Not only was he bullied for for having a stutter, it affected his life.
“I can think of nothing else that has ever stripped me of my dignity as quickly and as profoundly and as thoroughly as when I stuttered in grade school,” he said in a 2008 speech to the American Institute for Stuttering.
Biden has said that he was able to reduce his stuttering by reciting poetry for hours in front of a mirror and with the help of his mother. Asked what advice he would give a college student struggling with stuttering, he said:
“You know, if you think about it, stuttering is the only handicap people still laugh about … It has nothing to do with your intelligence quotient. It has nothing to do with your intellectual makeup.”
He also said his mother would tell him, “Joey, don’t let this define you. Joey, remember who you are. Joey, you can do it. … You’re defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.”
He took note of her words of encouragement, “So every time I would walk out, she would reinforce me. I know that sounds silly, but it really matters.”