We all have a terminal illness, except those who get hit by a bus, but few have suffered more in the public eye than Elizabeth Edwards. Only in retrospect do we know how painful it must have been to stand by senator and presidential candidate John Edwards on that beautiful North Carolina day in 2007. The press corps had been summoned for what was expected to be an announcement that Edwards, having learned his wife’s cancer first diagnosed in 2004, had returned, would be dropping out of the presidential race for the woman he loved.
Not at all. Edwards would be staying in with Elizabeth's full-throated support, saying how important it was for the country. That day she acted as if nothing had changed, in the desperate hope that nothing had.
Only later would we know that along with the dire medical prognosis had come news that her husband had been having an affair with a campaign worker. As she wrote later, she vomited when she found out. But she was convinced it was brief and it was over. She was wrong on both counts.
That was March 2007. Much has happened since, including Edwards finally admitting to fathering a child. Through it all, Edwards has been what she heralded in her two bestselling books—resilient and full of grace. In a posting on her Facebook page Monday, Edwards, 61, "The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered” and in some of those days, she has not been able “to muster as much strength and patience” as she would have liked. . . "It’s called being human.”
She did better than most of us with more to grapple with. A cheating husband is nothing compared to the loss of a child. At 16, the Edwards' son Wade died in a car accident. For months, she could barely speak. She’d think she was OK and then she’d be in the grocery store in front of his favorite soda and be stricken with so much sadness, she’d have to find a place to sit down.
Compared to that, her own cancer diagnosis was manageable. ``Wade was dead by the time an EMT came to the side of his car to help him... I had a chance, which he didn't have,'' she wrote in Saving Graces.
In what may be her final words, she says she’s been sustained through difficult times “by three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope."
And she would go on to endure intense hormone treatments to be able to have two more children. The fate that befalls many couples who lose a child would not be theirs.
Like so many political wives, she was much the better person of the two. Without her buoying him, you wonder if he would have gotten where he did. She was his equal in law school but quickly gave up her career to bolster his. When John decided to give up his courtroom practice to run for the Senate after their son’s death, she was all for it. During his vice presidential run, she was by his side, as she was for his presidential race. Every year on their anniversary, she recreated their first date at Wendy’s with a burger and fries. Every time there seemed to be a Ken doll under her husband’s Ken doll exterior, she would remind us how serious he was about the “Two Americas.” Surely he couldn’t be a lout if she were traipsing through New Hampshire snows with Stage 4 cancer.
Oh but he was a lout and one who would excuse his own conduct on Nightline by saying he had his affair when his wife’s cancer was in remission. Fortunately, there were many more people rooting for Elizabeth to get better than were rooting for her husband to be president and he mercifully dropped out of the presidential race in January of 2008.
But they didn’t return to domestic bliss in Chapel Hill. It is one more tragedy that Edwards’ last few years were contaminated by her husband’s tawdry melodrama, dragged out by so many vehement denials, he made Bill Clinton look like a cooperating witness. Like Hillary Clinton, Elizabeth Edwards suffered publicly for her philandering husband and suffered again for an unforgiving press corps that thought she should have kept her dog on the porch. Why didn’t Edwards stop her husband from running knowing that if he won the nomination and word of his affair came out, he and the Democrats would be toast? What’s wrong with her?
• Jonathan Alter: Elizabeth Edwards’ Brave MessageWhat’s wrong with us? Elizabeth Edwards lived the hand she was dealt with unimaginable grace and humor. She did what was best for her and her family, now gathered around her. In what may have been her final words, she said she had been sustained through difficult times “by three saving graces—my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope." Among the family at her side was her husband John, the father of her now-motherless children, who will need him to go on. It's called being human.
Margaret Carlson is a contributor to The Daily Beast and a columnist for Bloomberg News. She was a columnist and deputy Washington bureau chief for Time magazine.