RESTRICTED: Elizabeth Edwards Update: Tears, Fears and Hope
The “one good thing” about having incurable cancer? Says Elizabeth Edwards: “It gives you permission not to keep putting things off.” After tests in July showed her breast cancer is, in her words, “no better, no worse” from three months on a hormone drug she calls “my little chemotherapy pill,” Edwards, 58, is packing in good times—celebrating her 30th wedding anniversary by renewing her vows with John, 54, and taking her daughters on a “girls’ vacation” to visit historic sights. “I have lots of energy—no pains,” says Edwards. “Everybody wants to hear that the tumors are gone. I think that’s an aberrational result, but it doesn’t mean I’m not going to hope for it. But the doctors warned me about the first couple of scans not being able to give too much information. They basically said, ‘No worse is good.'” In a chapter added to the paperback edition of her memoir Saving Graces, she invites readers on the roller coaster that’s been her life since learning in March that her cancer had returned. John had come home from campaigning on March 18 and all seemed so well. It had been late when I heard him come in. I turned toward John when he climbed into bed. Long day? Yes, he answered, how’s your back? I had pulled a muscle the day before, lifting a chest of drawers. It’s not too bad, I lied. He reached his arm over me to pull me close. As he pulled, I felt a bolt of pain up my back and twisted quickly under his embrace. And then he heard it: a pop or a crack.
The next day, Dr. Lee, who had been treating my back, sent me for an X-ray. A rib on my left side was cracked, he said. But the X-ray showed something suspicious on the other side, and he wanted to get a bone scan. I am worried, I told him. He was honest, which I wanted, but his simple words were a dagger: I am worried too.
That night John held me as we lay awake, waiting to go to the hospital, to hear the words already playing inside our heads. The cancer is back.
Now we were alone in the exam room, waiting for the scan. A woman on the elevator had spoken to me about my book, and I let myself lean into thoughts of all that had happened in the last six months. For a few minutes more, I could be the woman who had won her battle with cancer and lived to write about it. I let myself fall into the memory.
Most of the people who waited to have their books signed during my book tour came with their own stories. As I traveled, I came to talk about all these people and what they meant to me. We spend our lives weaving a tapestry of sorts. The largest ribbons are our family and closest friends. The other people we weave in are what gives our life its texture and its strength. And when life takes a wrong turn–as it will for all of us–that tapestry becomes a blanket we can wrap around us. As I have so many times.
After the scan, it was not long before the radiologist came in. “We should assume that we are dealing with metastatic disease. The biopsy will confirm it.” Not the biopsy may tell us differently. He knew better. We knew better.
The time after the biopsy was the worst. It would be followed by a CT scan to see where else the cancer had surfaced. As we waited, John took my hand in his, and his fingers spun the wedding ring on my finger. I spoke first. “It’s been a long journey.”
“It’s not over,” he answered, but he didn’t, couldn’t look at me at first. Then he lifted his face, and his eyes found mine. “Will you marry me again?” he asked. “This summer, on our anniversary, will you marry me again?” We had talked about renewing our vows, but this wasn’t that idle conversation. This was urgent, pleading and full of love. A real proposal.
“Can you take thirty more years?” I asked, knowing it was beyond reason to say such a thing. “More than you know,” he said. “Yes,” I said, “I will marry you again.”
No marriage is perfect. John and I have argued, we have disagreed about the children and about jobs, about why he insists on going for a run at dinnertime. From time to time we have been disappointed in one another, because that is the nature of real intimacy. This wasn’t meant to be a love story, but it is impossible to be honest without saying how much we needed each other.
We are not in denial. I will die much sooner than I want to. I will leave a splendid man and an amazing daughter with yet another funeral to attend when they place me in the ground next to Wade [the Edwardses’s son who died in ’96], and I will not be able to comfort them. And I will leave two magical children whom I love with all my being too early. Jack asked me who would be the grandmother of his children. How could I answer? I tried to speak, but the truth was that unless there is a breakthrough, I will not see the birth of his children. I know these truths. They stomped into the hospital room that day, and never really left. But those truths are ill-behaved, so they have to sit at the children’s table. I sit with them periodically. I let them yell at me about death for a few minutes so I don’t yell at me about death all the time.
The scan showed no additional cancer and the Edwardses, “feeling as if an immediate death sentence had been lifted,” announced her condition and said they would continue the campaign. They were unprepared for the ensuing national debate over that decision.
The only part of the debate that was troublesome was Emma Claire and Jack. I came home one night from a two-day trip. John was still gone, so the children and I slept together. There wasn’t much sleep for the mother in the middle, but I wouldn’t have traded it, Emma Claire’s hand on my arm, then her leg across mine, Jack periodically waking and giving me a kiss. When Wade died, it had given us great peace that we had no regrets about the time we spent with him. So John and I now settled on taking the children with us on the campaign. I could homeschool them in language and social studies; we would hire someone to tutor them in math and science.
Our children learn something from our choice to live. They will have struggles from which I cannot protect them after I am gone. And they will remember how their family chose to handle hardship. I want them to say, “We did not give in.” If they learn that lesson, we will have made the perfect parenting choice.
Emma Claire and Jack make the days or years I have left so full of joy and purpose. They make me smile when I don’t want to because they deserve the smile, they deserve the memory of the smile. I was crying the other day, alone, I thought, and Emma Claire and Jack came in. They hugged me. “Why are you sad?” Jack asked.
“I just am,” I said. “I’ll be fine in a minute.”
“Is it us?” Emma Claire asked.
I pushed the tears aside. “No, oh no, my sweetheart.” How could I let them be left with such thoughts? “I think I just wanted to make brownies. Anyone want to?” I doubt the non sequitur worked on them, but they skipped to the kitchen, and I resolved then that the days I have left with them will be days of joy and laughter and brownie-making.
If I said I knew what to do about making this easier for Cate, my precious gift, I would be lying. I want God to give us time together. I want her to thrive when the part of her grapevine that is entwined with mine is pulled apart. I want her to hold onto pieces of my vine, and I know she will.
And John. I could have married several men—an embarrassing number actually—but I was certain I would know when the right life-mate came along. Well, I met John and I didn’t know. But I came to know, to love, to grow with John and beside John. And when I die, it is John who will keep fighting for all the things about which we have cared so deeply. Will he decide to throw out the carefully marked boxes that go with the Hallmark ornaments? Probably. If he can find them in the attic. Will he decide that there are too many markers in the drawer in the project room? Surely.
I keep waiting for the way this story ends. There is no real end, I suppose, for like each of us, I start each day with the hope that it will be good and full, and I end each day with a prayer for another day like the one I just had, and one day … one day for each of us, there simply is not another day.