I was stopped in my tracks last week on the day it was announced further treatment for Elizabeth Edwards was deemed unproductive. It’s always interesting to hear how such decisions are put into words as gently as possible. They really meant time was running out for her and there was nothing left to be done. Everyone, including me, began to speculate on just how much time she had left; weeks, days or less. As it turned out, it was less, in fact, only hours.
I was surprised by the effect this news had on me. Then again I wasn’t. I felt a connection to her for many reasons. Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2004. Earlier that year, on my birthday in fact, my mother discovered her lump. My parents were planning a trip to my house to celebrate that day. They didn’t come. Cancer interrupts birthday celebrations. Cancer interrupts presidential races. Cancer interrupts life and no one’s life is immune.
Just like Elizabeth and her family rallied to deal with her cancer, my family rallied around my mother as we prepared for our own struggle. We followed how they were going. There was a bond of sorts between us. There is an invisible bond between all cancer families. Cancer doesn’t care if you are the wife of a rich Senator who is also running for Vice President of the United States, or if you are the wife of a retired high school history teacher (my mother) from a small Midwestern town. Cancer is a great equalizer.
After Elizabeth’s and my mother’s diagnosis, things quieted down on the cancer front for a while, at least in our family. Everyone got on with their busy lives. We hoped cancer was halted or at least stalled. Months went by when we didn’t even talk about cancer, perhaps thinking if we kept quiet, cancer would as well.
Another election rolled around and once again the Edwards family was in the political spotlight as John Edwards ran, this time as a 2008 Presidential candidate. Then the day came in March of 2007 when yet another announcement was made. Elizabeth’s cancer was back, a recurrence, the news no cancer patient wants to hear. I watched them make their announcement matter-of-factly that day, standing together appearing unified in their decision, Elizabeth in her bright blue suit, looking poised and calm. Some people made judgments about their decision, criticizing them for continuing on with the race. Some even called her a bad mother.
People don’t stop judging you even when you have cancer.
In August of 2007, my mother complained of pain in her shoulder and back. Tests were ordered and results revealed “spots,” a gentler way of saying recurrence. She was put on the drug Zometa to slow growth of cancer in her bones. It was supposed to buy us more time.
One night while we sat around in my parents’ living room discussing my mother’s latest appointment details and debating the reality of the recurrence, she sat upright in her chair and announced, “I know my cancer is back. I’m just like Elizabeth Edwards.” She was almost proud of this special bond of allegiance she felt with Elizabeth.
You’re really not like her, I was tempted to respond. You are twenty years older than she is. Your situation is not the same. But of course I could not say that. I could not strip her of her badge.
That discussion was in October. By the beginning of March, my mother was gone. We all kept hoping Elizabeth would have a better outcome. Granted she lasted a couple more years, but ultimately her cancer metastasized into her liver and she, too, passed away due to liver failure, just like my mother.
Then came my own breast cancer diagnosis and I more fully understood the bond my mother felt with Elizabeth and others like her. Suddenly Elizabeth, my mother and I were the same, along with so many others, women linked together by cancer. Most of us in this “cancer club” were profoundly impacted by Elizabeth’s passing. Every loss to this disease feels personal somehow, but Elizabeth’s death was especially heartfelt perhaps because she was someone who used her position to speak eloquently about life and death for the rest of us. She understood us. She was one of us.
Thinking about these things after hearing Elizabeth had passed away brought back many painful memories for me. I thought about what both of our families have been through and the road that lies ahead for them, especially the young children. It hasn’t been easy and the future won’t be either.
I also thought about why women (and men) all across the country came to care about Elizabeth Edwards. Usually the “rest of us” are just envious of the wealthy and famous. We don’t really relate to them much on a personal level. Something about Elizabeth was different. Was it because of her life’s hardships the rest of felt such empathy? Was it because of the death of her son, Wade? Was it because she struggled with her weight and we secretly liked that? Was it because of the cancer, or her husband’s infidelities?
Perhaps it was more than these things. Elizabeth Edwards seemed to truly cared about people and made the conscious decision every single day after her son died to choose to live her life a certain way. She made the choice to lead the kind of life that would bring honor to her son’s memory. She chose to do the same after her breast cancer diagnosis and when her marital problems became public knowledge as well. She made the effort to follow the “high road,” which sounds like a simplistic cliché, but perhaps that’s why people cared so much for her. They admired the way she chose to live, especially in times of extreme adversity. Perhaps we all envisioned ourselves making tough choices in our lives with as much grace and dignity as she displayed in hers. Maybe we could be like her, or at least try to be.
I guess it’s true; one’s character comes out in the tough times, not so much when things are going smoothly. That’s what inspiration is all about. Elizabeth Edwards inspired us to be better people. That’s why she will be missed by many, most of whom never even really “knew” her; people like my mother and me. That’s quite a legacy.
What are your thoughts on the life/death of Elizabeth Edwards?