She died just as I arrived at the wrong hospital. It was Wednesday afternoon, February 24, and the First Lady, Jill Biden, was making her first official trip outside Washington to tour the labs of the Massey Cancer Center at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. My brother called again. At a different hospital 900 miles away, doctors could not revive our mother. She was gone before I could find the parking garage. She was 59.
In the auditorium, the First Lady talked about her friend Winnie. In 1993, the same year my mother had me at age 30, not much older than I am now, four of Dr. Biden’s friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. “Three of them survived,” she said. “Winnie did not.” I’m sure I’m not the first daughter consumed by the brutal irony of this disease; the very parts of my mother that sustained my life helped end hers. Winnie had three children. “As the Gospel of John says, ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it,’ ” the First Lady said. It was Winnie’s death, she added, that led her to found the Biden Breast Health Initiative. “Out of sorrow, we found purpose.”
If other politicians campaign in poetry and govern in prose, Joe Biden does both in eulogy. For five decades, his pain has been a most unusual political asset, a cynical gift disguised as a curse. Looking back, it seems obvious it would deliver him to the presidency at our darkest moment. His inauguration on January 20 felt like a memorial. With no crowd behind the gates at the fortress of the Capitol, and a gulf of six feet between each chair, it was still and silent as he swore the oath of office on the site of the January 6 insurrection, inheriting an America in the grips of sickness and mourning. The five weeks of the Biden era have been a never-ending wake, presided over by a spiritual leader of a secular government, a foremost authority on sadness.
To know the new president and his family, you must know loss. Theirs is no less devastating for being, by now, familiar. Joe Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash just before Christmas in 1972. His eldest son, Beau, who survived that crash with his brother, Hunter, was killed by brain cancer in 2015. Jill Biden was 26 years old when she married a widowed freshman United States senator with two motherless boys. She became Mom, while Neilia remains, forever, Mommy.
Death is our great equalizer, but not all death is created equal, and American history provides no perfect comparison for the losses we’ve had lately. The Civil War claimed between 620,000 and 750,000 lives over four years. The influenza pandemic that began in 1918 claimed an estimated 675,000 Americans over two years. The coronavirus has killed half a million in a single year. And then there are the untold others, the people for whom the pandemic determined not the cause of death but its circumstances. My mother started treatment in January 2020. She never got to meet my brother’s son, her first grandchild, born in August. The hospital where she died didn’t allow visitors for patients who were not “expiring.” She wasn’t expiring until, on that Wednesday morning, she suddenly was. My father died in 2015, and she hadn’t remarried. When her heart stopped beating, my brother was in the room — via videoconference.
At the White House on the Monday before that, the president held a candlelight vigil for those lost to the pandemic. He reached into his pocket and took out a note. It contained the precise coronavirus death toll as of the date, February 22: 500,071. His staff updates the note each day. As much as they’ve served as public officials, the Bidens have served as public vessels for grief. In his two campaigns for vice-president and three campaigns for the presidency itself, Biden’s suffering, and his capacity to recognize and absorb the suffering of others, has been central. He wrote a book about his grief after Beau’s death, and when you watch him talk to voters, you see not the backslapping of a candidate but the nearly mystical touch of a religious figure. It’s true that he never attracted crowds the way Donald Trump did at his MAGA rallies. Biden’s appeal translates most clearly up close. Before the pandemic, at the rope line after his speeches, he would accept the mourners, hands on their shoulders or wrapped around their fists, his eyes welling with tears or closing as if in prayer. No matter how many times I saw this on the campaign trail, it was never clear to me what they wanted from him, other than to be listened to, to have their hurt acknowledged by someone who had been hurt. And yet a president is always a contradiction; it’s what America seems to demand. On Thursday, Biden dropped seven 500-pound bombs on eastern Syria, the first air strike of his presidency and, I’m sure, not the last. The Pentagon said the counter-attack somehow “aims to de-escalate the overall situation.” On Friday, the president traveled to Texas to observe the wreckage of the winter storms, to be a healer.
If you think about it for long enough, any story about the presidency is a story about the meaning of life and, in that sense, a story about death. If you stare at it hard enough, ambition can look like running hopelessly away from mortality.
In Richmond, the First Lady spoke about access to health care and cancer health disparities in the Black community. In the sixth row, Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, who has remained in office since the 2019 scandal in which he apologized for appearing in a school-yearbook photo in a racist costume (he later recanted and said it wasn’t him in the picture after all), looked on. He was one of the only guests at the event who was not a member of the White House staff or the press corps. This is what it’s like to be a government official now: You speak to mostly empty rooms, the few witnesses concealed behind their masks. Dr. Vanessa B. Sheppard told the First Lady a story about a Black woman who had triple-negative breast cancer, a grim diagnosis for anyone, but especially for women of color, who have a higher likelihood of dying from the disease. The woman survived, Sheppard said, and was about to celebrate her birthday. Then she revealed that the woman was her. “Oh my gosh!” Dr. Biden said, in shock. “Oh! Wow. That was so powerful.” As the next speaker started, Dr. Biden was still processing. She interrupted to shout, with glee, “Happy birthday!”
After the event, a member of the First Lady’s staff brought her over to say hello to Katie Rogers from the New York Times and — because I was standing with Katie — to me. She asked how we’d traveled to Richmond, and when we said we’d driven together from Washington, I made a joke about Thelma & Louise. Dr. Biden thought that a little road trip sounded like fun. She asked what the most Thelma & Louise thing to happen on the drive was. I locked eyes with Katie, who is one of my closest friends, and almost laughed. The truth was so dark. If I wasn’t in shock, I’d be shattered. I couldn’t expose something so strange and so personal to the First Lady. But I’m sure she would understand.
*This article appears in the March 1, 2021, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!