Six years after first being diagnosed with breast cancer, Elizabeth Edwards, lawyer, mother and estranged wife to former presidential candidate John Edwards, has died. Though sad, her journey gives us all an opportunity to remember the details of life so often lost in the hustle and bustle of it all.
I didn't know Mrs. Edwards personally. I never met her, nor, I bet, have you, but we're all at least familiar with her story: her father's military career forced her to move around; she attended law school at University of North Carolina, where she met a princely man named John Edwards, whom she would marry. They both worked in the legal field, become fabulously wealthy and he eventually evolved into an up-and-coming Senator and, later, vice-presidential and presidential candidate, while she toiled to insure his success. She became a political wife, and appeared to love it.
Throughout this American fairy tale there were the requisite tragedies and scandals: a talented son who died in a car accident, as well as her husband's illicit affair that bore not only a child but months of tabloid headlines, and destroyed her marriage.
Despite her trials and tribulations, Elizabeth Edwards stood strong, refusing to become a victim and rebuilding her family in the face of great turmoil. That strength proved to be her greatest asset as she tackled her most dire challenge: breast cancer, with which she was diagnosed in 2004. She remained confident that she and her doctors would beat back the disease.
And they did; that is, until 2007, when Mrs. Edwards revealed her cancer had not only returned but spread. There was no hope. Yes, cancer would kill her. The only question was when, and she and her doctors would employ any and all treatments they could to hold the disease off.
"I expect to do next week all the things I did last week, and the week after that and next year at the same time all the same things I did last week," she said in 2007, as she explained her plan of medicinal attack.
Then, yesterday, came the news: doctors had called off the 61-year old's "unproductive" treatment. The disease had now spread to her liver, and Edwards' life was coming to an end. There was no more hope, and today Edwards died, surrounded by her family.
Mrs. Edwards, however, still refused to cower, and wrote on her Facebook page yesterday, "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."
It's hard not to be moved by her message, one that offers a lesson both timeless and timely.
Cancer's a horrible disease, a cellular mutation, one that has touched or, unfortunately, probably will touch all of our lives. Earlier this year, a friend of mine named Kat decided, after nine years of fighting Leukemia, that her time had come - the doctors could do no more - and she said farewell to this sojourn.
The end wasn't a surprise to her, nor was it a surprise to another friend's mother, Barbara, who accepted her terminal lung cancer as part of life. She would know what so many other people don't: what it's like to die. To her, death was simply a part of life, an experience few people get to appreciate or understand.
If 'Six Feet Under' taught us anything, it's that there are countless ways to die. You could get hit by a bus, electrocuted by a New York City grate or choke on a chicken bone, alone in your house for days before anyone even realizes you're gone.
Any way you cut it, death's not pretty, and very few of the possibilities, other than terrible diseases, give people enough time to gather their thoughts. That's why Edwards' words are so powerful: she and others know what so many of us, struggling to get ahead, fighting social nemeses or viewing everything through a "hipper-than-thou" cynicism, forget: "The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered."
It's best, I think, to cultivate at least two out of Edwards' three "saving graces:" family, friends and faith.
So, as we head into this generic holiday season, let Mrs. Edwards' courage, compassion and gratitude be your guiding star: if there's someone with whom you've been feuding, try to make amends; if you haven't called your granny in months, give her a ring; if your end goal is simply to be successful or make a dollar, realize that a sink hole could swallow you tomorrow, and you won't be given the opportunity, like Mrs. Edwards and so many others, to reflect on your life and see the good, the beautiful and rare.