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Joe Biden: “By focusing on my sons, I found my redemption”

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

As Vice President Joe Biden's son was dying of brain cancer this spring, he delivered a speech at Yale that addressed his own losses and talked about how important his bond with his children was to him.

Biden's first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident right after his first election to the Senate, when he was 30. In the speech, he downplayed his reputation for resiliency.

"There are countless thousands of people, maybe some in the audience, who’ve suffered through personal losses similar to mine or much worse with much less support to help them get through it and much less reason to want to get through it," Biden said at Yale:

Six weeks after my election, my whole world was altered forever. While I was in Washington hiring staff, I got a phone call. My wife and three children were Christmas shopping, a tractor trailer broadsided them and killed my wife and killed my daughter. And they weren’t sure that my sons would live.

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. But by focusing on my sons, I found my redemption.

I can remember my mother — a sweet lady — looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it. She was right.

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. Who knows whether I would have been able to appreciate at that moment in my life, the heady moment in my life, what my first obligation was…

And I began to commute thinking I was only going to stay a little while — four hours a day, every day — from Washington to Wilmington, which I’ve done for over 37 years. I did it because I wanted to be able to kiss them goodnight and kiss them in the morning the next day. No, "Ozzie and Harriet" breakfast or great familial thing, just climb in bed with them. Because I came to realize that a child can hold an important thought, something they want to say to their mom and dad, maybe for 12 or 24 hours, and then it’s gone. And when it’s gone, it’s gone. And it all adds up.

But looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me. Some at the time wrote and suggested that Biden can’t be a serious national figure. If he was, he’d stay in Washington more, attend to more important events. It’s obvious he’s not serious. He goes home after the last vote.

But I realized I didn’t miss a thing. Ambition is really important. You need it. And I certainly have never lacked in having ambition. But ambition without perspective can be a killer. I know a lot of you already understand this. Some of you really had to struggle to get here. And some of you have had to struggle to stay here. And some of your families made enormous sacrifices for this great privilege. And many of you faced your own crises, some unimaginable.

But the truth is all of you will go through something like this. You’ll wrestle with these kinds of choices every day. But I’m here to tell you, you can find the balance between ambition and happiness, what will make you really feel fulfilled.

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