By Art Harris, The Bald Truth, (c) www.artharris.com, all rights reserved
As a journalist shivering in the cold Carolina rain before dawn, camera crew in tow, we were under orders from campaign staff NOT to knock for another 15 minutes.
It was 5:45 a.m. mid fall, 2004, and Elizabeth Edwards, a vice presidential candidate’s wife and mother of four, was a television show dream date. As a middle aged supermom with two children under five, she juggled cereal boxes for rebellious Jack and Emma Claire and a legal career turned campaign strategist for husband John. She joked that People magazine had chosen him as a hot-looking guy, but he was married to a wife in perpetual diet mode. She had endured the ultimate parent’s tragedy–losing a son, Wade, when the 16 year old died in a car crash.
Millions of women, and lots of mothers, hung on her every word, lessons life had taught her, and she was sought after by all the talk shows, to share about surviving, relearning how to find joy in life, what really mattered, which mattered to the good as gold Oprah demo. Now she was inviting us in to share herself to millions of ET and The Insider viewers, not only as a way to humanize her family, and by extension, the Kerry Edwards ticket. She said it was a typical school morning Chez Edwards.
“Come on in. I can’t let you all stand in the rain like that,” said Elizabeth, flinging open the door to her elegant, sprawling home outside Chapel Hill. “Want some coffee?”
Here she was, half-dressed, a little groggy, but smiling at strangers who instantly became her new fans.
While Jack debated his cereal choice, and husband John brushed Emma’s hair, she scurried about the kitchen packing lunches, making toast and recalling a breakfast story–when she once made what she thought was cinnamon toast for Emma Claire. She balked, but ate it anyway. Mom later learned she’d used paprika. “She didn’t want to hurt my feelings.”
On this morning, breakfast goes down just fine, as Jack retreats to the sun room to munch from his bowl and watch cartoons before his Dad signals it’s time. They pile into a station wagon, with John driving, and off they go, my cameraman crouching in the far back, rolling as Edwards leans out to kiss his son goodbye before he darts into school, the money shot.
She gave us a ringside seat to what appeared to be a Norman Rockwell family portrait, tested by only part of the adversity she would face, but believing in each other and hanging in. Elizabeth mourned her son Wade to the point she’d tell strangers about his accomplishments, an awkward moment she often ended by thanking them for listening. She spoke of the bleakness, without Wade, the sadness that once hung in the house like a fog, how then daughter Kate, now 28 and a lawyer herself, would crawl up on the bed to sleep so she could be close to her parents.
Then she took a chance on living again, took fertility drugs to have two more children, one at 48 and another at 50, scoring her AARP card, she liked to joke, at 55 while paying for nannies and college for Kate. And not just any college—pricey, prestigious Princeton–then following in her mother (and father’s) footsteps to attend law school and become an attorney.
It was just days before the 2004 election that she discovered a lump that turned out to be breast cancer. She tells her husband and decides to keep campaigning. Only after Kerry’s concession speech does she drive to the hospital for treatment.
She loses her hair, but keeps coming back, taking on a role as a poster Mom for mammograms and doctor visits, giving women hope and inspiration in two books, and keeping her game face on, for the most part, hitting the campaign trail for her husband again in 2008…then taking a double barrel of bad news. Not only did she have breast cancer again, but her husband had gotten a campaign videographer pregnant after commencing a secret affair during his run for the White House.
She conceded she was angry, and they separated. But press reports detail how in her final days, she wanted him at home to help with the children, and he made food runs for guests and tried to support the dying wife he’d betrayed as best he could; Elizabeth knew the kids needed a father more than ever, so fought to keep her family intact, all along the way, preparing her children for life without her.
To remind her of other mothers who had suffered loss, she wore a mustard seed bracelet, a gift from a young veteran’s mother whose son had died in Iraq. Elizabeth told me it symbolized an old Chinese proverb she was told involved a holy man giving another grieving mother a mustard seed, with orders to go door o door until she found a home with no sorrow and give it to the occupant.
“She just wanted me to know I was not alone,” said Elizabeth, “that we were members of a unique club.”
It was a message she passed on recently via her Facebook page:
“You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces â€” 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 to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.
“With love, Elizabeth.”
I will always appreciate the books she signed for me, as Christmas presents in 2006 when I covered her again on her book tour, and the kind words she passed on to my mother, a fellow breast cancer survivor, who stood in line in Atlanta to buy one and meet her, and who, at 88 is bouncing back after brain surgery…She reminds me of Elizabeth, tough in her battle with illness, a fighter for worthwhile causes, tender and understanding not just to her family, but to anyone who needs a jolt of hope and encouragement.
Elizabeth was a great human being, an inspiration for anyone facing adversity, able to laugh at herself, and make strangers feel as if they were friends—even a journalist at her front door before 6 a.m. one cold, wet North Carolina morning.
She died at 10:15 a.m. Tuesday, but her family didn’t release the news until Jack and Emma Claire came home from school.
It didn’t matter to them that their mother was such an achiever, a beacon for others who had perhaps lost their emotional way, and they knew they sometimes had to share her. But she was always there for them, clearing a path, with love. To her kids, she was just Mom.
Fueled by her faith, she also wanted to believe she just might see her son, Wade, again soon.
Elizabeth Edwards was 61.