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Authors: Elizabeth Edwards

Tags: #General, #Legislators' spouses, #Biography & Autobiography, #U.S. Federal Legislative Bodies, #Political, #Self-Help, #Motivational & Inspirational, #Women In The U.S., #United States, #Resilience (Personality trait), #Diseases, #Health & Fitness, #Cancer, #Women, #Personal Memoirs, #Autobiography, #Patients, #Biography, #Oncology, #Medical


BOOK: Resilience
5.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
Also by Elizabeth Edwards

To my parents,
Vince and Elizabeth Anania

The act of looking forward after a setback is a solitary act, as is writing. But it would be wrong to suggest that no one else played a role. In my case, the looking forward was possible—no, necessary—because of my children, Cate, Emma Claire, and Jack and the memory of Wade, I acknowledge not only their importance in writing this book but in allowing me the gift of looking forward in life. It is a gift, but also a learned skill, and I learned it from my parents, Vince and Liz Anania, to whom I dedicate this book.
In the writing, I was encouraged and supported by my family, my brother Jay Anania and my sister Nancy Anania, and by my dear friend Glenn Bergenfield.
It may seem obligatory to thank one's editor, but in this case it is accurate. Stacy Creamer was with me through a very difficult time and was supportive of every decision I made about writing, not writing, writing. I cannot imagine a finer, more understanding editor.


stood at the sink in an impossibly bright hospital room washing my face, washing away the heat that, with the doctor's words, had come rushing to my face and neck and chest to fill every pore, to gather in the corners of my eyes and to line my lips and thicken my tongue. “He will never walk, his brain is dead,” the doctor had said. It still burned. How much cold water would it take to take the hot sting out of those words?

My father lay immobile behind me, a crisp sheet folded neatly across his chest, the crease apparently to be forever perfect above his forever-still form. I had not been able to bear to see him like that any longer, so I had turned away and instead watched my own warped reflection in the metal mirror that seemed to mimic the distortions within me. The doctor's words were all I could hear inside my head, but they were too immense, too life-changing to stay in my head. They spilled out and filled the room, bouncing back from the walls and the metal me in the mirror, and with every echo a new torment:
He will not walk. His brain is dead. He will not walk. His brain is dead
. … I kept cupping water to my face, unable to cool the heat but equally unable to stop trying.

The day before, this solid man who would be seventy in four days, who still had cannonballs for shoulders and the calf muscles of a twenty-five-year-old fullback, had fallen over while eating a salad for dinner. He had played tennis in the morning and had gone biking in the afternoon. He came in to dinner after planting spring flowers in the yard. Every minute of his day was a test of his body, a test he passed over and over again. And then, with no warning, a massive stroke, and he could not move from the floor. I was forty years old, and I had never seen him fail at a single physical thing he had tried to do. Not once in forty years.

I closed my eyes as I cupped the water, and the images of my well father, strong and full of life, gathered on top of one another. Eating a hot pepper from his garden in Naples and thinking it a green pepper, his face goes flush, tears fill his eyes, his glasses fog up, but he chews on. And then, grinning at his astonished family, he gets up and picks another. The awestruck faces of the enlisted men he commanded in Japan when he came out of the pool into which they had thrown him and, with his soaking wet fight suit clinging to him, they saw his supremely muscled form outlined. News that he had made captain had come in while he was on an early-morning fight, so when he stepped out of the jet in his fight suit, his squadron had rallied around him cheering and had thrown him into the pool in giddy celebration. I always suspected that the vision of him earned him a respect from those enlisted men that morning that the additional stripe on his sleeve would not have won him.

I had sat with him at Bethesda Naval Hospital when he had four discs in his spine fused, the final remedy two decades after his back was injured when the wheels on the jet he was getting ready to pilot collapsed beneath the plane on the tarmac. He should have been groggy and still in the hours after recovery, but he was smiling at everyone, and teasing the nurses by pretending to smoke an endless series of imaginary cigarettes. Within weeks, he was back on his bicycle, and within months, he was back on the tennis court. There was the time his nose was flattened in college in a football game. The doctors said it was so crushed that he could choose whatever shape he wanted since they were starting from scratch. So he chose the shape he had had before. And he took up lacrosse, and he was an all-American his first year. He used to lift women up—my mother and her friends—and twirl them head over heels like batons. Proper women in 1950s shirtwaists ignored the fact that their garter belts had been on display, and they giggled to be treated as girls again. He carried my brother, my sister, and me all at once on his wide shoulders upstairs to bed when we were youngsters as if we were stuffed animals. Now, impossibly, he lay dying behind me, unable to move, unable to speak.

The doctor had called us into the room to tell us. My sister sat with her arm around my mother. My brother sat holding our father's hand. I stood at the foot of the bed, my eyes on my father's still face, not on the doctor I had never seen before. Each of us cried, not in a wailing way, but in low, lonely moans. The doctor talked on about the effect of the stroke on the blood flow to his brain, and we each half-listened, for truthfully nothing after “his brain is dead” could penetrate. Tracks of silent tears covered all of our cheeks. When the doctor left, we all hugged one another, grieving our collective loss and our individual ones, then everyone else left the room. I had to tell my children, ten-year-old Wade and eight-year-old Cate, where they waited in the hall with their father. And I had to wash my face before I would tell them.

I could clean the tear tracks, but the heat would not go away. I gave up and turned to leave and face the children. As I turned, I looked again at my father, but now he was looking back. He was still immobile, his huge bulk still pinned beneath the tight sheets, but his eyes were open. Not just open but wide dishes of panic. He could not speak. And yet he did. We stood staring at one another—I haven't any idea how long—and he said, or his eyes said,
I am here. I am not dead. I am here. I want to live.
I answered back in words. “Don't worry,” I said. “We know. We are not giving up on you.” And I marched past my family to the nurses' station and told them that that doctor was not allowed back into my father's room under any circumstances.

This was April 18, 1990. We buried my father in April of 2008. Oh, his body kept failing him, little by little until the last of him slipped away eighteen years later. But in between he learned to drive again (in a fairly frightening fashion), and drove until his response time was demonstrably too slow and we could not let him drive any longer. He talked again, in an odd and sometimes inappropriately scatalogical way—“the boobs are boiling”—but still making people smile, until he no longer could talk easily, and losing confidence in his voice, he started talking again with his eyes. He danced with my mother for nearly a dozen more years. He never biked or played tennis again, but he traveled. He went to Poland and Spain, he took a cruise and watched the whales off the Alaskan coast. He voted for his son-in-law for vice president of the United States. And he was there to bury his oldest grandson—my first-born. But he was also there to hold four more grandchildren—Ty and Louis and Emma Claire and Jack—and even two great-grandchildren—Anna and Zachary—who were born after his stroke. In the end, he was surrounded by family—his wife of nearly sixty years, his children and grandchildren, his sister and her children—when finally, of his own will, he quit fighting and let go.

There were times in the eighteen years more that he lived when he wanted to give up, when he didn't want to keep fighting to drive or to dance or to live. I remember sitting with him once after my son Wade died. We were going through a workbook his rehabilitation therapist had assigned him. I would read; he would answer questions. He got them right at first, and then he started to miss them, a few at first and then all of them. His frustration mounted, and he finally said with awkward resignation that he was a burden he promised himself he would never be and he would just as soon die. I was stunned and angry. I wanted him to live so badly; how could he not want it, too? If you could have Wade back, I asked, but only in your exact condition, no better, would you take him? He raised his head a little, and his deep brown eyes met mine. He nodded. Then you understand how we feel. We know it is not perfect, but nothing really ever is. I reached for his hand and told him you are here, and that is what I want. And, I added, if you think this is getting you out of finishing this assignment, you are wrong. He opened his mouth. It was not the wide smile I remembered, but the gap between his two front teeth showed, and that was smile enough for me.

There is nothing about resilience that I can say that my father did not first utter silently in eighteen years of living inside a two-dimensional cutout of himself. From the first moment when he forced open his eyes to tell me that he was alive, through all the setbacks of a body on which he had relied that subsequently failed him little by little, he held on to whatever he had, however meager it was. He managed somehow to turn whatever he held on to into precisely what he needed to survive. When in the first year he had the audacity to tell the rehabilitation counselor that he wanted to drive, or when in the eighth year he danced with my mother, or when in year sixteen he unabashedly flirted with the aide at the assisted-living center, he was saying to the world what he said to me in 1990: I understand that it will not be all I crave, but I want to live. And so he did. When he could no longer drive himself, he wanted to walk. When he could no longer walk himself, he wanted a wheelchair that he could manage himself. He kept narrowing his life and his expectations to what he had left, and in doing so—no matter how small his world—he always reflected the sheer majesty of living.

Too many times I have had to use my father's strength—or my mother's grace as she stood beside him—as a touchstone. I suspect we each have someone like him, someone whose personal courage in the face of impossible odds inspires us to do something we thought we could not do, who reminds us that what seems like a mountain in front of us can in fact be climbed. My father was an imperfect man in many ways, but maybe it was better that he was imperfect and that I knew he was, for I learned that perfection was not a requirement of resilience. This was Dad, and if he could decide to live, so could I.


he culture of celebrity informs our lives in such a way that we seem to know much too much about someone's life until—pop!—we know nothing at all. Ultimately interest wanes, and the media's laser focus moves on to other subject-targets. It was not so long ago that Lee Atwater changed politics in America, and some—as I—would say not in a positive way. But ask his name on the street and you may not find a single person who knows it. A friend of mine asked his college class how many knew something about Brigitte Bardot, and they had never heard of her at all. Some celebrities remain familiar through the decades. The appetite for tales about John F. Kennedy, for example, never seems sated. And yet do we really understand who he was?

Judas Iscariot has remained infamous through the centuries for his betrayal of Jesus. Yet I am betting there is another biblical character, someone once almost as notorious as Judas, who is now much less widely known. Just as the words
became synonymous, there was a time when
were near synonyms, too. In the Acts of the Apostles, Ananias lied to Jesus about his money so he would not have to give as much to the church. The story was once so renowned that, not so long ago, when someone wanted to brand President Theodore Roosevelt as a liar, he simply said he was a member of the Ananias Club.

Few today, except those who fill in Will Shortz's crossword puzzles, would know that
is still a common clue for the four-letter entry
(Since my maiden name is Anania, I do not consider this an entirely unfortunate lapse in our national attention span. My father appeared before the House Armed Services Committee in 1958, and South Carolina congressman Mendel Rivers asked him, since his last name was Anania, if his word was to be trusted.) But the ebb and flow of celebrity constantly remind me that whatever fortunes and calamities have blessed or befallen me, and however they have given me some notoriety, that notoriety will be—if I am lucky—fleeting.

For those who know me well, I suppose you can skip forward, but for the rest of you, I am Elizabeth and I have lived an extraordinary life in nearly every sense of the word.

I was born in 1949, the daughter of a Navy pilot and his wife, who was also the daughter of a Navy pilot. My brother and my sister were born in 1950 and 1951, and the troop of us crossed the globe a half-dozen times following my father so he could fly and spy and fight in wars. I watched my friends bury their pilot fathers; I came perilously close to burying my own father; I watched some of my friends march off to wars in which they would die. I grew up largely without American television or the emergence of the shopping mall, and I listened, on Armed Forces Radio, more to Rosemary Clooney and Jeri Southern than to Ricky Nelson and Elvis Presley, all because I spent most of my growing-up years in Japan.

Maybe it is because I remember those days with Nat King Cole in the background as so idyllic that I had a notion that a magical life was built around music that sounded like Armed Forces Radio. At ten, I could paint a fantasy life—and I did—based on the music to which I listened and on the books I read. And at sixteen, I did the same thing. The books changed, but the music did not. My internal world was set to song.

I lived beside a war, the Vietnam War, but even then I romanticized the soldiers, their girls back home, and I had the music of World War I and World War II from which to choose. I lived in Japan at the time and Armed Forces Radio didn't play any antiwar songs. On my radio it was “I'll Be Seeing You” and “The White Cliffs of Dover” and “It's Been a Long, Long Time.” They all turned out the same:
Never thought that you would be standing here so close to me. There's so many things that I should say, but words can wait until some other day. Just kiss me once, then kiss me twice, then kiss me once again. It's been a long, long time

And I thought I was living that magical life when I went to college at the end of an era when young men in suits picked up their dates at the train station and carried their suitcase to an approved house of a matronly hostess in charge, presumably, of the girl's chastity for the weekend, where witty men and clever women sat in smoky jazz bars and talked only of important things, where no one washed dishes alone or ate alone, where people sang around a piano at Christmas. I was living a life I had heard and read of, with Benny Goodman in the background, where handsome men caressed pretty women with a passion that must be reserved for those who did not know if they would ever kiss again. The fact that it never was a reality did not mean it wasn't my chosen reality. I wanted that old-fashioned world of private passion and unadorned beauty and a life constructed around things of purity and purpose. I wanted it in college and in law school and for most of my growing-up years. I hadn't grown up in a world in which these romantic images were corrupted in any way. Until they were. Even when I had to accept that the soldiers were not coming home to pigtailed sweethearts on country lanes, that the color of your skin gave you a whole different, less hospitable country, that there was real hardship and pain everywhere, I still wanted to escape to that fantasy when I could. My expectations for life were based on that fantasy.

When I was faced with a less pleasant reality, as when I read Truman Capote's
In Cold Blood
at sixteen, I simply concluded it was an aberration, the ugliness of criminal minds imposed on the beauty of the idyllic home. John Updike's people, falling apart from lack of character, were a curiosity. My people belonged to Henry James, and they fell away from joy or grace because of the splendor of their characters. I thought in song. When I couldn't think in song, I could pull out the lyrics book I had been constructing since college. First a hundred songs, then a thousand, now five thousand, and there I could find the soundtrack I preferred for my life. In song, as in Henry James's novels, faults all turned out to be virtues, as if written by Sammy Cahn:
I'm irresponsibly mad for you.
I had, I have to say, a long, long way to fall when the fall finally came.

I married my law school sweetheart, John, on a hot summer day in North Carolina, and we walked through life in a carefree way. We really did have the two children, a picturesque two-story white frame house, the golden retriever, and the station wagon. My husband made a name for himself as a lawyer; I slipped back into a hybrid life of being the lawyer I was supposed to be and the mother I needed to be. When things were not right, well, we just fixed them, in our lives, in the lives of others. Sometimes money could fix a problem; sometimes it was simply a matter of being wise enough to know which string to pull. But we always fixed what needed to be fixed and our ride together had its own music. Our house became the place where life happened; there were young people gathered in the kitchen; there was a basketball game on the cement court behind the house. It seemed that whatever we had done, we had done right.

It would have been easy for life to have played itself out from that kitchen, and I don't know that, if it had, it would have occurred to me that I had never taken in the fullest breath I could. It had been diaphragmatic breathing, matching my inhaling and exhaling to some rhythm I wanted, some song that fit my life at the time, or I thought did. I had never had to find my own rhythm, never needed to search for my own cadence. If the music's cadence was drowned out, it was usually by John's or the children's, and I walked to that. When I needed my own, I would fall back into Jerome Kern. For all of the times that followed those carefree days in my kitchen, for all of the pain I endured, at least I learned in the years that followed what it meant to breathe for myself, and I learned, too, what it meant to scream.

Wade, my firstborn, died on April 4, 1996. An April wind crossed the tobacco fields of eastern North Carolina and pushed the car of which he was so very proud from the road. He was sixteen, and maybe it would not have mattered how old he was, but he did not know how to get it back on the road without flipping it. So it flipped. And flipped, and flipped, until all of the life of the boy was pressed from him. And from me.

I move on now, but I will be back. I always come back to Wade. But I cannot tell the rest of the story if I let myself fall into him now.

Our surviving family held together, or rather we were held together by an extraordinary fourteen-year-old girl, our daughter Cate, who managed to be what we needed and to allow us to look for new paths, paths that she knew would further upset her life, but she kept saying yes. Yes, go back to work, Dad. Yes, try to have another child. Yes, run for the U.S. Senate if that is what you want. It wasn't perfect; she was a teenage girl who had been feeling her budding wings. But given the loss of Wade, she knew it wasn't the time, so she placed her own dreams in a box and put them away for a time.

So we had that one new child, Emma Claire, and then another, Jack, and John did win the Senate seat, so soon it was sounds other than those of teenage boys in our Raleigh kitchen. Life was changing quickly. Wade died in 1996. John won the Senate seat in 1998, the year Emma Claire was born. Cate graduated from high school three weeks after Jack was born in 2000. By the fall of 2000, that kitchen in Raleigh was empty. Cate was off to college and to a life blessedly away from all the pain that had been—and from the turmoil that was to come. The remaining four of us were in a spacious home in Washington. Since I had lived a life of being uprooted, I should have been used to it enough to move to Washington without a look back. But this time I was leaving the house in which I had expected to die, and I was leaving Wade's grave to live 250 miles away. And it wasn't so often our kitchen in Raleigh anymore in which we gathered but a more empty kitchen in Washington. We slept in the Raleigh house less and less often, and sometimes saw our dear friends back there only at Christmas. I had to make special trips to change the plantings at Wade's grave. It took me some time to get my bearings.

The younger children, the picture of resilience, grew and thrived in a series of homes in Washington, D.C., and then, when my husband decided to run for the nomination for president and then as the nominee for vice president, in a series of hotel rooms and in the homes of generous strangers.

And except for missing Wade and regretting what he had lost, life had a good cadence again, an odd public cadence but a rhythm we all learned.

If you really did not know me then, you would need to know only that I was moderately well-liked by the press for being unscripted (and unscriptable, if that can be bastardized into a word) and candid. I was reasonably well-liked by the Democrats for being well-informed and accessible, an actual mother and not a mother figure. I was even a favorite of opposing extremists because I was chubby enough to be made fun of and unschooled enough politically to say something now and again that they could take out of context and use as fodder. Then the election of 2004 ended, the Democrats, John Kerry and my husband, who should have won given all the issues, in fact lost, and on the very next day I confirmed a diagnosis I had suspected in the weeks before the election: I had breast cancer. Even the opposition laid down their arms.

The treatment was not easy, but, honestly, after Wade's death, I could do it. There were days when it was hard, but I could fight and that was all I needed. It is what I hadn't had with Wade: a chance to fight. I remember telling my father, his right hand clinched perpetually half-open, that if Wade was alive he would fight. I told myself the same thing, and everything after that was easier. John sat with me in chemotherapies, often reading as I slept or calling people to thank them for their help in the election. And he would bring me dinner in bed when I didn't want to climb the steps of our four-story Washington house again. And by the end of my treatments we had moved back to North Carolina, first to the house that had been Wade's home, and then to a rental house in Chapel Hill from which we watched our new home being built. Finally, we moved into that new family home on an old tobacco farm outside Chapel Hill, idyllic and peaceful with promises of a long life as an old couple with children who were still impossibly young.

That was the story from my side. John thought still about running for president again. He traveled, giving speeches, talking of poverty, about which he and I care deeply, raising money for efforts to increase the minimum wage and start antipoverty programs. I stayed home and wrote a book about the journey on which we had found ourselves over the previous decade. The children started public school. And, without my knowing, a woman who spotted my husband one afternoon in the restaurant bar of the hotel in which he was staying hung around outside the hotel for a couple of hours until he returned from a dinner and introduced herself by saying, “You are so hot.”

There is a Dorothy Parker poem of which I am fond that captures the flow of my life.

The Red Dress
BOOK: Resilience
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