Yesterday, I bought Elizabeth Edwards’ book “Resilience.” It’s a quick book (213 pages) and I read in one sitting, and have spent today mulling its message.
Like a lot of people, I’ve lost my respect for John Edwards. No matter how noble his politican stances, it’s hard to admire a man who has an affair while running for president — a man with a dying wife and two young children, no less! I’ve also had much ambivilence about Elizabeth, considering how she encouraged her husband’s presidential run even after she knew that he had a secret that could destroy his candidacy. But reading the book made me feel much more sympathetic towards her, if not towards him.
The book is subtitled “Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities,” and Edwards doesn’t pull any punches about the adversities in her own life — the death of her teenage son Wade in 1996, having Stage IV breast cancer, the discovery of her husband’s infidelity. She also doesn’t pull punches about her struggle to deal with those issues.
Before her son’s death, Elizabeth writes, she was convinced that being a good person was enough to guarantee a good life, that willpower would address virtually any problem. Even after Wade died, she wrote, she clung to the belief that somehow God would turn back time and her boy would come back. She writes:
I looked in every black Grand Cherokee , the model of car in which Wade died, hoping to find him. It had all been a mistake, I so wanted to believe. … I wanted to scream at people who were mowing their lawns or fixing their porch. Don’t build that high-rise, don’t paint that store. Please. My God is just about to turn back time. … (Wade) had to be here, somewhere here. I looked in closets, I opened drawers. Drawers! He was six feet tall. The distorted biology of a grieving mother. I knew as I opened the drawer that he could not be there, and yet I was powerless. I had to open it. What if somehow he could be there?
She is just as blunt and candid in writing about her cancer and her marriage. (One amusing story on the cancer front: At some point after the cancer had spread to her bones, Elizabeth discovered a rough patch on her neck and feared maybe her cancer had metastasized to her skin, too. She fretted for days and then confided her fear to her 25-year-old daughter, who looked at the spot. “I don’t know what skin cancer looks like,” the daughter said. “But I do know what a curling iron burn looks like.”)
The one thing certain about life, Elizabeth says, is its uncertainty. She writes:
Every time I fall into a chasm — my son’s death or a tumor in my breast or an unwelcome woman in my life — I had to acept that the planet had taken a few turns and I could not turn it back. My life was and would always be different and would be less than I hoped it would be. Each time, there was a new life, a new story. And the less time I spent trying to pretend that Wade was life or that my life would be just as long or that marriage would be as magical, the longer I clung to the hope that my old life would come back, the more I set myself up for unending discontent.
… Let’s start with the unavoidable fact.If I had special knowledge about how to avoid adversities, about how to spot the pitfalls of life, I would spot them, I would avoid them, and I would share how I managed to that. I do not. I have a lot of experience in getting up after I’ve been knocked down, but clearly, I do not know anything at all about avoidance. We all tumble and fall. I certainly have, but the truth is that is it going to happen, in some degree, to all of us. Oh, maybe everyone we care about will live to attend our funerals. Maybe disease will never make you afraid of a curling iron burn. Maybe everyone you love and who loves you will be loyal to you in every way for every day of you life.
Or maybe not.