As the world tuned in to watch President Joe Biden deliver his inaugural address at the Capitol on Wednesday, a lone man in uniform carried out a silent vigil more than 110 miles away.
Kneeling on the chilly ground as winds whipped through the Delaware cemetery, the man quietly clasped his hands and bowed his head before the grave of Biden’s late son, Beau, for the duration of the speech. His identity remains unknown, as do his reasons for visiting St. Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Del., on Wednesday.
But the poignant scene, which would have gone unnoticed if a reporter from the Delaware News Journal hadn’t stopped by the graveyard to pay her own respects, struck a chord with thousands on Twitter.
“This broke me,” wrote the actress and activist Alyssa Milano.
Biden has frequently spoken about the grief he experienced after losing Beau, who died of brain cancer at the age of 46 in 2015, and how the tragedy held him back from pursuing a presidential run in 2016. In an emotional speech before he left Delaware on Tuesday, he said that his only regret was that Beau – a former Delaware attorney general and a rising political star at the time of his death – was not the one being sworn inas president.
Patricia Talorico, an award-winning features writer and food columnist for the News Journal, was also thinking about Beau as the inauguration festivities kicked off in Washington this week. “Delaware is a tiny state. The joke is there are no degrees of separation,” she later explained. Only a few years older than Beau, she had crossed paths with him over the years, and had never forgotten a chance run-in at a political event in 2002.
At the time, Talorico was overwhelmed with the stress of a looming deadline and a story that wasn’t coming together.
“I’m sure the despair showed in my face,” she recalled on Wednesday. “Then I heard a friendly voice say, ‘Hey, how are you? Are you OK?'”
It was Beau Biden, holding out his hand. “He wasn’t in office at the time,” Talorico wrote. “He was just being kind. It wasn’t a grand gesture, just a small one, but somehow, it made a difference that day. I never forgot that act of kindness.”
So when she set out on Wednesday to see how people were celebrating Biden’s inauguration in his home state, Talorico decided that she would stop by Beau’s grave and say a short prayer. Biden’s tearful tribute to his son on Tuesday had resonated with her, she wrote: “I lost a very close family member two years ago this month, and I can understand his continued grief.”
But when she pulled up to the cemetery, she realized that someone else had gotten there first. Not wanting to disrupt the moment, she stayed in her car and listened as Biden called for unity at a time of crisis in his inaugural address. More than 20 minutes later, when the speech came to end, “the person was still kneeling, still had their head bowed,” she wrote.
Talorico posted a photograph of the scene on Twitter, and reactions flooded in from hundreds of thousands of people. Some suggested the person kneeling beside the grave was a police officer who had been sent to protect it from being vandalized, while others theorized that it could have been an Army veteran who served alongside Beau.
Another wrote, “I do not care what the reason was for him being there. Just thankful that Beau was not alone during this historic day.”
Talorico, too, decided to let the photograph speak for itself.
“The journalist in me wanted to go back and find out the person’s identity and ask why they were there,” she wrote. “The person who once received a kind gesture from Beau when I needed it most knew it was a time to be respectful, and I drove away.”