The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden’s wise words about death helped me understand the realities of life

A letter I wrote to Biden as a teenager—and his thoughtful reply—helped me come to terms with how fleeting life can be.

Sen. Joe Biden, left, then the Democratic Party’s vice-presidential nominee, embraces his son, Joseph R. “Beau” Biden III onstage at the Democratic National Convention in Denver, Co. on Wednesday, Aug. 27, 2008. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

Just before Christmas 1972, I pulled a sheet of paper from my new stationery box and penned a letter to Joe Biden in an awkward cursive: “Dear Senator Biden, I was very sorry to read about the passing of your wife and daughter…” the note began.

I was 15 years old.

Why would a teenager write a sympathy note to a United States senator? I think it was a combination of the fact that as an aspiring young politico, I already had a sense of Biden as an idealistic, emotional man — and that I was deeply upset by the shocking deaths of his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi in a car accident while on a trip to buy the family’s Christmas tree.

I was also struggling to explain the unexplainable.

I’d yet to experience a death in my own family and the bubble of certitude I had been born into was pretty much intact until I heard about the Biden deaths. In time I’d learn that lesson more fully, but back then I had only a glimmer that in life, to borrow from Dashiell Hammett, we live only while blind chance spares us. Or, as the vice president himself said at Yale’s commencement only last month: “Reality has a way of intruding” into one’s life.

After I put my sympathy note into the mail, I forgot about it until several months later when a cream-colored envelope arrived for me from “Joseph R. Biden, Jr. Delaware United States Senate Washington D.C.”

“Dear Mr. Petrow,” read the letter inside:

Dear Mr. Petrow: I offer a belated thank-you for your kind words of condolence. I deeply appreciate your sentiments. I owed so very much to Neilia. She had a talent for making not only her own life worthwhile but also the lives of those around her. She was both a loving mother and a loving wife. In addition, she was my political confidant, in whose judgment I had implicit and utmost trust. Neilia looked forward to our coming to Washington. Now our life has been completely torn apart by an event I shall never completely understand. Neilia deserved better. Thanks so much for your note. It was deeply appreciated. Best wishes, Joe Biden

Written on a manual typewriter, Biden’s letter has withstood four decades in my home filing system. It’s also become an artifact of my teenage years, a hard-copy touchstone to an era long gone.

The envelope also contained two Mass cards, one each for Neilia and Naomi. On the back of Neilia Biden’s card came a quote from Romeo and Juliet: “Death lies on her like an untimely frost upon the sweetest flower of all the field.” His infant daughter’s card read: “Dear God, What greater thing can be said of Amy than Ezekiel’s words: ‘As is the mother, so is her daughter.'”

Above all, I was struck by Biden’s reflection that there might never be an explanation of this tragedy that he — or anyone — would completely understand. The certainty of his uncertainty astounded me, having come of age in a black and white world, both on TV and in real life.

So this past weekend, after reading the news that Biden had lost yet another child — his son, Beau Biden, who as a 4-year-old survived that awful car accident, died Saturday of brain cancer — I took out pen and paper to write him again.

“Dear Mr. Vice President, I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your son, Beau,” I started. I made note of his namesake son’s many accomplishments, professional and personal, adding: “Forty-three years ago you wrote to thank me for a condolence note I had sent you as a teenager on the passing of your wife and daughter. If anything your letter taught me that life’s complexities can’t always be understood and that they must be accepted, with the prayer that something good will follow.”

After mailing it, I thought to myself, “How infrequently do I take pen to paper these days?” I realized that the tactile act of writing by hand allows me time to think before I commit to words; such a lost art can also be a deliberate way of feeling and remembering. Not because it’s more “proper” to hand write a note than to use e-mail or post thoughts on social media, but because a death is so concrete and so permanent and so, too, should be the means of how we express our loss so that, at the very least, we’ll always have that hard copy of our feelings — if not our loved ones or those we’ve never met, but whom we want to always remember.