Today, as her family says their final goodbye - inasmuch as any of us can ever say a final goodbye to someone we love - I am thankful for the life of Elizabeth Edwards. Like many who never met her, I still felt as though I knew her, and I found her inspiring. What can be said about this woman that hasn't been said? She was articulate, she was passionate about the people and the things she believed in, she was determined, she was a force of nature, she was a devoted mother, and clearly from what we have heard from her friends, she was also a devoted friend. But all of that has been said.
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I admired all of those things about her, but most of all, I admired how she lived out her faith in a public way, not by shouting about her beliefs, but by quietly showing us what is is to live as a follower of Christ when your world is crumbling around you.
I understand that Elizabeth was inspired by Terms of Endearment to begin writing a "dying letter" decades before she faced her own cancer. Apparently the movie convinced her of the need to make sure her children would always have the benefit of her maternal advice. I wonder if, when Wade died, she thought she had it backward. She was preparing her children in case they lost her one day, but then she unexpectedly lost her oldest child.
It was how Elizabeth handled the loss of her son that first got my attention when the Edwards hit the national scene. As all parents are when they lose a child, of course she was deeply affected, but she made the unusual decision to deal with her loss by having two more children when she was around 50. What an amazing amount of energy she must have had!
It was over the course of the 2004 campaign that I came to feel as though I knew Elizabeth. The more I saw of her, the more I liked her. Her warmth always seemed to shine through, even when she was talking about some mundane policy position. Soon after the election, when we learned she had been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer, I felt horrible for her children, but knew that she would get the best care possible and I hoped for the best.
I still hoped for the best when the cancer returned in 2007 with its dire prognosis, but also with the possibility of managing it much like any chronic illness. She continued to campaign enthusiastically, and seemed so optimistic, that it was hard to believe that even cancer could take her down. She was criticized for some of her choices then, but I thought that was unfair. It was her life, after all, and I thought she should be able to spend whatever time she had left doing exactly what she wanted to do. After the campaign ended, she used her experience with cancer to reach out and help others, often speaking out for the need for health care reform.
When we found out about the girlfriend, it all began to seem too much for one person to have to take. But Elizabeth continued to show her inner strength. It was clear (and understandable) that she was angry, but she didn't allow herself to be defined as the wronged wife, anymore than she had allowed herself to be defined as a cancer victim. When it became clear that John had also lied about fathering the other woman's child, Elizabeth did what she had to do for herself - she separated from John. But even then, she didn't lose sight of the fact that the day would come when her children would be left with only one parent. Always pragmatic, she understood that she didn't have the luxury of turning her children against their father. She made sure that he would continue to play an active role in their lives, and allowed him to be with her and the rest of the family when she died. She showed a level of grace towards the man who betrayed her that many in her place might not have shown. It's an example I hope others will learn from, because children benefit when parents refuse to tear one another down.
I imagine her "dying letter" is packed with wisdom. Over this week I have heard that it included everything from how to core a head of lettuce to how to choose a church. I suspect there's also a lot about how to treat others and how to show your faith through your actions.
In the days since she died, I have thought of that song we all learned as children, "This Little Light of Mine". I can picture Elizabeth teaching her children, "Hide it under a bushel? No! I'm gonna let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine! Let it shine!"
Until next time,
"I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing." ~ 2 Timothy 4:7-8