How do you tell your children that your cancer has no cure?
It was where Elizabeth Edwards found herself in March of 2007. She had battled breast cancer – and beaten it. She was a survivor. But hardly a half-year later, tests were showing that tiny bits of the tumor had survived, too. And they’d settled into a rib and her hipbone.
So Edwards – perhaps best known as the outspoken, down-to-earth, estranged wife of one-time presidential candidate and U.S. senator John Edwards – did the most sensible thing she knew. She and her then-husband gathered their two youngest kids, Emma Claire, then 9, and 7-year-old Jack, at the family’s kitchen table in Raleigh, N.C. And she said:
"Everybody at this table who’s not going to die, raise your hand."
A pair of blond heads nodded, agreeing yes, someday, they would.
"Well, I’m probably the only one at the table who knows what I’m likely to die of," Edwards continued. "But nobody knows when any of us are going to die. So. You know you’re gonna die. Do you want to start dying now?"
"No," was the ready reply.
Neither, she said, did she.
"I tried to put it in a way that made sense to them," recalled Edwards. "I put it in terms of them and not just in terms of me."
It’s what any mother would do: Put her children’s needs before hers, and swallow back fear to explain a grave situation truthfully but tactfully. During her family’s decade in the public eye, though, it was a focus Edwards kept despite unthinkable odds – including the tragic death of a teenage son, heartbreaking political losses, the infidelity of her husband and the bruising bouts with both breast and bone cancer. The latter would ultimately claim her life on Dec. 7, 2010 at age 61. She stopped cancer treatments after doctors determined further therapy would do no good, according to reports.
In life, Edwards’ deeply personal 2006 memoir, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, frankly detailed how she found inspiration and hope in many of her challenges. Her 2009 book, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities, addressed the impact of John’s affair on the family.
Back in October of 2008, shortly after that affair first made headlines, Metro Parent brought Elizabeth Edwards to Troy, Michigan to speak in honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was among her first public appearances since the news broke. In a way, though, she was right at home: among the same sorts of kindred souls and strangers she’d often turned to for support.
"I’m actually looking forward to it," she had said, prior to her visit. Up until her final message to supporters on Facebook days before her death, Edwards strove to keep those connections strong.
Bee-lining through a grocery store checkout was never a strong point for Elizabeth Edwards. Her older daughter Cate would often tease her.
"Mom’s in there exchanging phone numbers with the person behind her in line," Edwards recalled her daughter saying. "She’ll laugh." Yet it’s a knack that Cate, now 28, picked up herself from mom’s example. Digging deeper than a generic, Hey, how are ya? Referring to a clerk by first name. Searching for "the sameness," as Edwards put it.
"You’d be surprised how often you do find something – a person, a place, or something you enjoy – in common, and you’ve built a connection there."
And in her life, she said, those connections proved powerful.
That’s something Edwards said she discovered during her military childhood. The daughter of U.S. Navy pilot Vincent Anania, Edwards and her family criss-crossed the globe, from Florida to Japan to Maryland. Changing towns and faces were a constant. For a brood of "huggers and touchers," though, so was reaching out.
Her dad set the tone: He’d kibitz with a group of teens one minute – and thrust out a hand to Olympic legend Jesse Owens the next. Her mother’s mantra revolved around news, sports and soap operas: Be able to chat about the three, and you can talk to anyone. Years later, on the campaign trail, Edwards would find that speaking to strangers and even trying unfamiliar foods never caused her any anxiety. "I long ago quit worrying about that and started enjoying the ride," she wrote in Saving Graces.
Pulling people in, she realized, created a huge safety net. But her understanding of its strength would forever change one April day in 1996, when a strong gust of wind swept a Jeep off a road near Raleigh. It flipped. And instantly killed the driver – Cate’s big brother, Wade, who was just 16.
It was supposed to be a spring-break rendezvous at the family’s beach house. Instead, the happy life that Elizabeth and John had built as successful attorneys and loving parents of two teenage kids was shattered.
But nothing could have prepared her for what came next. People. From soccer teams. Carpools. PTA. Church. The Y. The bank. Down the street.
"I had never thought about how our lives managed to intertwine with all these people, but they had, with some just by living, with most by doing," Edwards would write. Even technology opened outlets. On the Internet, bereavement newsgroups let her grieve, get support – and give it. And the family created new links at the Wade Edwards Learning Laboratory, or WELL, a computer center they created at his high school.
Years later, Edwards said, Wade’s friends – "the boys," as she called them – still visited. One, who had been driving in the car right behind Wade’s, had just stopped by with his new bride when Edwards spoke to Metro Parent. They went furniture shopping.
"It was like doing something I would have done with Wade. It was bittersweet," Edwards said. "They’re sweet to still want me in their lives at all. It’s a great gift."
Through a devastating diagnosis, she realized that complete strangers had a similar gift to give. Edwards found a lump in her right breast days before her husband lost his 2004 Democratic bid for the vice presidency with running mate John Kerry. She made a public announcement the next day.
Before long, the result was a staggering 65,000 emails in her inbox, and piles of letters and cards, from fellow fighters, survivors and many others. Their words wove a "connective tissue," Edwards wrote: "It is impossible to come to terms with the enormity of the net that these people threw out to the floundering me without reading each line, without imagining each sender."
It was always her aim to personally answer each one – whether it was a long, heartfelt note, or the moms who would quietly tell her, "I was just diagnosed with cancer," or "I lost my son, too."
"It’s a real sign, if people think if they just whisper in the right person’s ear, something good can happen," Edwards said.
"Straightforward, honest, with a quiet dignity and integrity." That’s how one well-wisher described Edwards in a note he sent her. A "sensible soul."
Her practical approach became a staple on the campaign trail. Under Edwards’ watch, her tight-knit staff "family," as she was fond of calling them, nixed fancy hotel and restaurant stops for low-budget lodging and home-style salads and meatloaf. And, while stumping for her husband, she struck Americans with a warm, frank intellect, especially on pet issues like healthcare. Even standing just 5-feet 2-inches tall, Edwards turned heads.
She was no less direct and realistic in the decision to expand her family – a choice that came about a year after Wade’s death. To avoid putting any "replacement child" stress on a newborn, she, John and Cate agreed: Two more kids was the best route. With fertility treatments and plenty of persistence, Emma Claire and Jack were born. It wound up equaling one baby in each of four decades, she pointed out, from 1979 to 2000.
Wade remained a presence – in pictures, conversation. But "wholesome" was the image of him that they tried to pass on, rather than perfect. "Because," Edwards explained, "all dead children are ‘perfect.’
"My prayer is that he will always be a part of the children’s lives, but in a positive way. So the impact of his life is not this heavy burden they have to carry," she said, but rather, "that they have a way to measure themselves." Since Wade never drank or smoked, for instance. "You use it like the devil with them," she added, chuckling.
In the political limelight, she said, striking a positive balance for the three kids was just as paramount – and, in ways, tricky. Cate had a chance to absorb the notion of service and helping others before her dad stepped into public life. But the younger two were living it. Sometimes amid a sea of balloons on a convention stage; other times, watching it unfurl on TV.
"They see it when people are cheering for you," she said. "This is part of a theater that goes on. The real work – there’s no applause for, there’s no spotlights on you, there’s no television cameras.
"That’s what I hope was not lost in their experience."
Their experience, as Edwards saw it, also offered rich opportunities in the form of Secret Service men, campaign volunteers, even reporters. It was a constant flux of people and perspectives. "In the chaos and the openness of our house was a lesson for these children," she wrote. "Let it all in."
She never dodged a little "stand-in" parenting, either. Like the time John Kerry’s wife, Teresa, tried to pop Jack’s thumb out of his mouth, causing a mini-outcry. To Edwards, though, it wasn’t much different from how she treated Wades’ friends, who had flocked to her family’s kitchen. The relationship wasn’t just built on "string cheese and soda," she wrote, but won by "hard times, by treating them as if I cared about what happened to them."
Especially after two "rounds" of motherhood, she realized that meant exposing kids to new experiences and letting them test the skills you’ve taught them.
"The thing they needed most from us was wings," she said. "In our effort to protect them, sometimes, I think we clip those wings; we make sure they can’t fly too far away.
"It is the hardest thing to say: ‘The thing I need to give you most of all is the ability not to need me.’"
That would become a more-tangible necessity for Edwards. Her children watched as she fought cancer – and martyrdom. Right before the chemotherapy would make her hair fall out, Edwards shaved it off. She was ready for the nausea, sores, yellow nails and exhaustion. "I wanted to be a warrior," she’d later say.
And while she set an example of strength, she also culled it. From Cate’s quiet resilience. From the younger kids’ vivacity. And from Wade.
"I’ve often said, in the worst moments of anything I’ve gone through – cancer or any of the things that have happened to me since – I would sit in them gladly," she said, "if I could have Wade back.
"And it gives me some sense of proportion about making the moment, however hard it is, bigger than it is."
The word "incurable" could be seen as a verdict: No chance for a cure; end of game. But as a friend once put it, though, it really means "they don’t have a cure at this time," Edwards said.
Even days before she died, Edwards reportedly was in no pain – and good spirits. Back in 2008, she said she felt no worse than when the bone-cancer diagnosis came 19 months earlier. The medications she was taking to keep the disease in check weren’t causing any side effects – a pleasant change from earlier treatments.
"Truth is, the biggest side effect of cancer is death, and that’s the one I’m trying to avoid," Edwards had said. And, for a while longer, she would. Whenever she got a "good scan," Jack and Emma Claire cheered. Mom said she promised them she’d be as honest about any bad news.
In those final years, she spent time traveling to talk to people doing in-depth cancer research. Edwards said it felt like "we’re right on the edge" with answers. But her prognosis wasn’t clear-cut. "Holding it off" was the goal – "five years from today, then five years from tomorrow, then five years from the day after that …" Ultimately, it was a little over two years.
Meanwhile, Edwards lived in a delicate space between hope and harsh reality. She got to see Cate buy her first house and pursue her passion – offering legal aid to disadvantaged people who are fighting to hold on to their own homes. But she knew time might not be on her side. And she realized that, in the end, she would miss many wonderful chapters yet to be written for her family: graduations, weddings, grandkids.
"It’d be wrong to say I never think about those things. I do," she said. "And – it breaks my heart every time I do." Her voice broke for a beat. Quickly gathered, she continued, "It helps me that Cate is here. She is extraordinary in so many ways, that I know that she would stand in my place for everything. You know, they’re never better off without their mother – but they don’t lose a lot, I have to say, in this. They gain some things, too."
Toward the end, perhaps one of the most difficult factors of all was when partner of 31 years admitted to having an affair with a campaign volunteer during his bid for president. The Edwards were legally separated with intent to divorce at the time of Elizabeth’s death.
Pulling morals from hardships was a model Elizabeth Edwards long tried to set for her kids – in the past, with strong support from her husband, she said in her book. But answers are never simple.
"It’s hard to feel really hopeful that it can be – something that makes you stronger," she said. "It’s certainly complicated by animosity that’s out there.
"It’s also complicating for the children, in terms of allowing them to take life lessons from it. Because it stirs too many levels of emotion in them."
Still, Edwards said she tried to speak constructively. If nothing else, maybe it was a blunt warning about the "intoxication of celebrity" on public figures, she mused.
"People are constantly telling you how spectacular you are," she explained. "And you have to keep reminding yourself, all the time, that you’re really, really not."
Yet in any obstacle, Edwards said, she never asked, "Why me?"
"I’ve been, in so many ways, blessed. It’s hard for me to think that way." There are things you can control, she’d said; "the very worst of things, you’re powerless against. But you can control more than (you think)."
She was hopeful that would rank among the deeper, lasting lessons her kids carry with them.
Years before Wade died, Edwards wrote a letter to him and Cate, with some parting lessons and words of wisdom in case she died before them. She had revisited those letters shortly before speaking with Metro Parent.
She said she wouldn’t have changed much. She’d still offer some ideas on what’s important about the person you choose to spend your life with. She’d still tell them to think for themselves when it comes to religion and even politics. At that time, though, she hadn’t written any new drafts.
"Most of what they learn is not gonna be what I write in the letter, but what they see me do," Edwards said. "So when bad things happen, you don’t put your tail between your legs and hide under a table.
"You get out and you grab hold of life that much harder."