On the evening of Wednesday Nov. 4, while Americans continued to wait for the results of a nail-biter of a presidential race, widowed father Alan Townsend shared a private memory of meeting then U.S. vice-president Joe Biden, in 2016, and sharing a heartbreaking father-to-father exchange, as men whose lives were both marked by similar tragedies.
Townsend, who is today the Dean and Franke Professor of Forestry & Conservation at the University of Montana, started out by sharing that the time he met Biden “will stay with me always.”
Follow his full thread below, for the full heartbreaking yet hope-inspiring story:
Townsend’s wife, Diana Nemergut, died of a glioblastoma, the aggressive form of brain cancer to which Biden’s son Beau succumbed, also in 2015, at the age of 46. And to complicate things further, the widower’s loss happened while his and Nemergut’s young daughter was also in treatment for a brain tumour.
Shortly after his wife’s death, Townsend (who then worked at Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment), learned that Biden was visiting his workplace to meet cancer doctors and researchers.
Townsend was invited to a meet-and-greet.
The day before, the widower told his then-six-year-old daughter, Neva, about Biden’s visit, explaining that the vice-president had lost a loved one to the same cancer that had taken her mother.
Many questions followed ...
Townsend’s daughter then decided she would write to the VP and give his grieving granddaughter, who was around her age, a very special gift.
The gift was incredibly meaningful: one of four bracelets made the day before Neva’s mother died. Townsend and his daughter both wear theirs every day, and Diana has hers in her place of rest.
Neva wanted the late Beau Biden’s daughter, Natalie, to have the fourth bracelet “so maybe she won’t feel quite as sad.”
She wrote a letter and put the bracelet in a box for her father to give to Biden, for his granddaughter, at the meet-and-greet.
Since Biden was on a tight schedule, Townsend tried to keep their exchange brief, merely thanking him for his work and adding that he’d “lost someone special and so appreciated his efforts.”
Biden paused and ask Townsend “who did you lose?”
The father spoke about his late wife and about his daughter’s own cancer diagnosis, and about the letter and gift she wanted his granddaughter to have.
Even though time was tight, Biden ignored his staff and continued talking with Townsend, father to father. ” ... he shook his head, and his eyes filled just a little, and he simply said ‘it’s just not right.’” recalls Townsend. When he tried to leave again, Biden would not let him.
They talked some more and Biden asked to know if Townsend’s daughter was present and then what the gift was.
The two bereaved men stood in silence, and Biden held Townsend’s eyes. “What I saw was someone still wracked by his own grief & yet remarkably able to feel, I mean really feel, that of others,” shared Townsend, in his thread. “A man who truly gave a damn about a person he’d never met. Right down into his bones.”
Townsend concluded his simultaneously heartwarming and heartbreaking thread with some thoughts on what this incredibly human moment tells us about Biden’s capacity to run the U.S.A.
“That is what we should seek in a leader, and what we should give back in return,” he said, in his final tweet.
The response to the thread was overwhelming, and the following day, Thursday Nov 5., Townsend thanked everyone for their kind comments and added a few final thoughts on another thing he and Biden have in common ― their belief in science.
“Neva is here today because of science plus empathy,” Townsend wrote. “Countless hours of research, then allowing exceptionally caring and skilled docs to shepherd her through. Both of these matter so, so much in all our lives.”
The dad noted that to get through the COVID-19 pandemic, listening to the science and showing one another empathy was essential. “We get through best, with the most lives saved, by trusting the science AND caring deeply for each other. It’s that simple, and that crucial,” he wrote.
And he praised Biden’s commitment to that formula.
“That is what I saw from Joe Biden that day in North Carolina. Using science as an expression of his love, and a balm for his grief, through the lives it could give back to others.”
WATCH: In the video below, see Joe Biden visit son Beau’s grave on election day.