RIP, Elizabeth Edwards

by subterfusex

Nancy Osterlag/Getty

We here at Subterfuge mourn the death of Elizabeth Edwards. She died today — Tuesday, December 7th — after doctors advised her not to seek further treatment for her advanced cancer. This news, though expected, is no less tragic, and we grieve for her and for her loved ones.

Elizabeth was diagnosed with her cancer in 2004. Consequently, her fight against the disease has been a public one. Since her diagnosis, she became a tireless crusader for women who struggled with the disease.

Elizabeth Edwards (nee Anania) was the daughter of a Navy pilot. An army brat, she spent part of her childhood in Japan, among other places. After graduating college, she attended UNC Chapel Hill’s law school. While there, she met John Edwards, her future husband. They married and had a son, Wade, who would die in a car crash in 1996, at just sixteen. This death was the first of a series of many painful tragedies.

The shock of her diagnosis with breast cancer was compounded by the severity of her condition. Though she went into remission, the cancer returned, this time in her bones. As mother to Wade’s older sister and two young siblings born after his death, Elizabeth spoke publicly about her greatest fear and hope–to live long enough to see her youngest turn eighteen, to know that they are all grown and strong enough to go on without her.

Edwards’ struggles went beyond her fight against cancer. In 2008 her husband — former senator and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards — admitted having had an extramarital affair with Rielle Hunter during his second failed campaign. (Rielle purportedly accompanied Edwards’ staff during the primaries, shooting documentary footage.) This affair resulted in the birth of a child, Frances. Elizabeth, visibly shaken, wrote about these experiences in her memoir, Resilience.

She and John formally separated soon after. While Elizabeth could, with all justification, have withdrawn with her children and her doctors from the public eye, she did not. She continued to work on behalf of her causes –poverty and health care — making public appearances and engaging with people via her book signings and online. An active participant on left-wing blogs, she was just as engaged in politics as her legislator husband.

In July of 2010, Elizabeth appeared on the Nate Berkus show to talk about her life post-John. She was a practicing lawyer from 1978 to 1996 (the year her son Wade was killed in a car crash). Edwards made the decision not to return to law, instead putting aside her career to help her husband launch himself as a politician–for the greater good. At the age of sixty, divested of the title ‘Politician’s Wife’, and no longer a practicing lawyer, she embarked on a new venture, as the proprietor of a furniture store in North Carolina.

In the aftermath of her husband’s affair, Elizabeth Edwards became a sympathetic public figure. Accounts from Edwards’ former staffers, however, told a different story. They described her as egomaniacal, a tyrant, and a micromanager. In a wrenching anecdote from the book Game Change, a frustrated Edwards was said to have taken off her shirt in the middle of her husband’s campaign office as she shrieked “look at me!” in sheer desperation. These elements to her character were seized by various parts of the blogosphere, used by others who wanted to pull “Saint Elizabeth” down from her place on the mantle.

For all that John Edwards captured the attention of the nation, and our votes, it was Elizabeth who connected with the people. Her genuine concern for others, her dedication to her family, her keen mind, and her bravery, did more than any marketing campaign ever could.

That is why we want to give her the honorary title of First Lady We Would Have Loved. She came tantalizingly close to the position of FLOTUS before chance, disease, and infidelity wrenched it away. It’s clear that she did not seek it for herself, but for the powerful good she and her husband could do through the office of the President. The more we learn about John Edwards, the more doubts we have about what an Edwards administration would have accomplished and what turmoil might have undone it. But we know, without doubt, that Elizabeth would have made a truly first-class First Lady.

We even wonder what could have been if Elizabeth were the candidate instead of the force behind the enigmatic John Edwards. Emily Yoffe of Slate muses,

“The sad news that Elizabeth Edwards died today has made me think one tragedy of the Edwards’ story is that Elizabeth was not the one to become the politician. While John had boyish looks and an oily, phony sheen of charm, it was Elizabeth who really connected with the crowds, Elizabeth who had a passion for policy, Elizabeth who had a cause—health care—she truly believed in.”

Tonight on Hardball, Chuck Todd lamented that Elizabeth Edwards had not run for office instead. She, he said, had the politician’s instinct. Always warm and genuine and connected with those around her. Chris Matthews agreed, adding that he never understood John Edwards’ charm, deriding him as generic and a little smarmy. But Elizabeth, he said, was the genuine article. The real deal.

A few minutes later, MSNBC’s Kelly O’Donnell mentioned that she had spoke briefly with Edwards’ family after her passing. Glassy-eyed, she mentioned that Edwards was surrounded by relatives and friends. Elizabeth, she said, did not want others to believe she had lost the battle against her cancer. She won because she lived a full life. Kelly also mentioned her time with Elizabeth as she covered the campaign, enjoying the warmth and compassion of a woman who worked as hard she could to realize her beliefs.

Then, Chris asked a surprising question.

“Did you like her?”

A little shaken, Kelly responded, “Yes,” she said, tentatively at first, but then she said it again. “Yes. I really liked her.”

*

Postscript: IN HER OWN WORDS

From the Daily Kos:

I talk about this all the time.  About Mary who went back to work at 75 to pay for prescription drugs she could have afforded . . . if she lived it Canada. She was lovely; I met her in Iowa.  About Beverly, who I met in Detroit, who could hardly speak, so consumed was she with worry for her son in Iraq.  And the pretty young woman who leaned over me in Cleveland and whispered in my ear that she was afraid; she had found a lump in her breast but couldn’t go to the doctor’s because she had no health insurance.  She has a death sentence if we don’t get her health care. It is not only easy to keep going, it is impossible to stop.

From her Facebook page:

You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces — my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel towards everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.

From Resilience:

Just as I don’t want cancer to take over my life, I don’t want this indiscretion, however long in duration, to take over my life either. But I need to deal with both; I need to find peace with both. It is hard for John, I can see, because it is something about which he is ashamed. But his willingness to open up is a statement that he trusts me, too. For quite a long time, I used whatever he admitted in the next argument and he was hesitant to say anything. That is, gratefully, behind us. There is still a great deal of sorting through to do — the lies went on for some time. And we both understand that there are no guarantees, but the road ahead looks clear enough, although from here it looks long.


One Comment to “RIP, Elizabeth Edwards”

  1. This is a very touching, very accurate and heartfelt tribute to such a great, brave woman. I am sorry that she is gone, but I am glad that she was with us for a little while. Its too bad that her life had to be riddled with so much heartache and disappointment. She is at peace now, though, I’m sure, one way or another. That much is good.

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