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"Down, down, down to the darkness of the grave, gently they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned." —Edna St. Vincent Millay

Elizabeth Edwards: The link between who we are and who we could be 

She was one of us

Elizabeth Edwards

Photo by Jenny Warburg

Elizabeth Edwards

The day after she died, someone posted a newspaper article about Elizabeth Edwards on a progressive political blog and added this one-sentence introduction: "When all is said and done, she was one of us."

Whatever "us" he had in mind, it seemed a perfect epitaph.

Was he thinking that she was a passionate advocate—and blogger—for social and economic justice? She was.

Was he thinking she was authentically, even brilliantly representative of the generation of Americans born after World War II? She was that, too.

Or he may have been thinking that the indomitable spirit with which she endured tragedy and continued to seek purpose in her life made her human in the fullest sense of the word. Because she was, millions of Americans—especially, but not exclusively, women—loved Elizabeth Edwards and mourned her passing last week.

It's easy to see that Elizabeth and her husband, John Edwards, reached for the political heavens, and they came to grief. The Greeks would understand. But if this was hubris, surely it was more the gods' fault than hers, or even his. After the death of their son, in a nation and world yearning for uplift, was it arrogant to think they were called to serve their country? Say instead that it was audacious and that Elizabeth's efforts were, as the Edwards' longtime friend Glenn Bergenfield said at her memorial service, never fueled by ego but rather by duty—and a sense that it was time someone of her generation tried for greatness.

After her death last week, I reread Saving Graces, Elizabeth Edwards' first book. A close friend of hers told me that it was intended to be ghostwritten, but after Elizabeth read the first chapter, she threw it out and wrote every word herself. This was after she was diagnosed with breast cancer at the end of the 2004 presidential campaign.

Saving Graces tells that story and the story of losing her beloved son, Wade, who was killed in a freak car accident eight years earlier at age 16. I read it quickly when it was published—too quickly. This time, I slowed down to appreciate the care with which it was written and what that told us about its author: Elizabeth Edwards cared almost too deeply about the meaning of her own life and about helping others find meaning in theirs.

Saving Graces is a bittersweet testament to Elizabeth's pain and abiding need to be a loving mother, wife and friend to her family—and to an extended family that ultimately knew no bounds.

It's also the memoir of a girl, a baby boomer born in 1949, to whom a better world was promised if people just pitched in and made it so. Elizabeth's father, the son of Italian immigrants, was a highly decorated Navy pilot, a World War II veteran who later flew Cold War reconnaissance missions in Asia and served in Vietnam. Her mother, herself the daughter of a Navy pilot, was an expert at packing the house on a moment's notice—and at forging new friendships wherever their next assignment took them.

From an early age, Elizabeth reached out.

"Because of the way I grew up, because time and again I had to walk into a classroom where everybody else knew one another, I had to find a way to make enough connections to make my life work," she wrote. "I understood early in life that I needed them. So I thrust my hand out, like my father had taught me. And I found out what they liked and talked about that. Like my mother had taught me."

Shuttling back and forth with her parents between bases in the U.S. and occupied Japan, Elizabeth grew up with a firsthand view of how America at its best was a force for good, helping to rebuild Japan and earning the enemy's gratitude. Vietnam, which spun out of control while she was in college, didn't dispel her belief. She led protests against that misguided war but stopped short of demonstrating at the home of the Naval ROTC commander—her father.

As Elizabeth came of age, the fight for women's rights, including reproductive rights, was taking hold, a movement she helped to lead and one that presented her with unprecedented choices as to how she should apply her considerable talents. She loved literature and, after graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 1971, she began a doctoral program in English at UNC. But teaching jobs were in short supply, and the program began to feel self-indulgent, she wrote, to students who "had all been children of promise." After two years, she switched to UNC law school, was brilliant there, her friends say, and began to practice law after marrying John.

Elizabeth was, as all her friends attest, funny, critical, smart as a whip and loaded with energy, able in her spare time, for example, to lead a women's law school team in whatever intramural sport was in season. (They were terrible, according to her book, but the point was to have fun—and to represent.)

In short, she could've been anything. The real question for women of her generation, however, was could she be everything? Because until the boomers could remake it in a more humane image, it was still a man's world and organized accordingly.

Faced with the task of balancing marriage and children with a professional life, Elizabeth naturally plunged into both, and community work besides. But her first priority was raising her family, which came to include the swarm of her children's friends who showed up every day after school at the Edwards home in Raleigh and who made Elizabeth their second mother (and the other way around).

For 16 years, everything was right with that picture. John, the handsome, hard-working trial lawyer, won big cases and millions in fees; he also coached soccer and ran five miles a day. Elizabeth, a bankruptcy lawyer, had time for reading, the PTA, holiday decorations, killer games of Boggle and serious consults with the kids about everything from poetry to dating. (On fashion, her older daughter, Cate, said at the memorial service, Elizabeth frequently advised dressing in solid colors for special occasions. "You'll often regret wearing prints," she'd say. "You won't regret solids." )

Elizabeth Edwards was opinionated, very competitive and always optimistic, her friend Hargrave McElroy said. She was also extraordinarily generous with her time and assistance whenever friends came to her, which was often.

She loved John and depended on him. He loved and was equally dependent on her. Their lives were full. Their home was a virtual community center. They didn't need to seek a public spotlight.

Then Wade was killed. And everything changed.

"I used to think that the greatest gift you could give a child was the sense that anything was possible," Elizabeth once wrote in misery to ASG (alt.support.grief), an online community of bereaved parents. "Now that gift has a horrid twist: Anything is possible."

I didn't know Elizabeth Edwards except in her political persona, and even then I didn't know her very well. I've read, and friends have told me, that she was passionate about telling the truth. In Saving Graces, she labored to discover the truth about Wade's death—not what caused it, but what it meant about God that such a terrible thing could happen. How should she go on with her own life without forgetting his? If there is such a thing as honesty in our explanations of self, this was it. For months, she wrote, and night after night, Elizabeth corresponded online at ASG, consoling countless others and accepting their compassion. Once again, she needed to make connections for her life to work.

Oddly, this insular activity began the process by which Elizabeth and John Edwards sought connections to a world beyond Raleigh and thought to bring their values into national politics.

In a sophomore Latin class, Wade had written this about heroes: "The modern hero is a person who does something everyone thinks they could do if they were a little stronger, a little faster, a little smarter, or a little more generous. Heroes in ancient times were the link between man and perfect beings, gods. Heroes in modern times are the link between man as he is and man as he could be."

He was channeling his mother, certainly, and doubtless his father as well. He was stronger. She was more generous.

Two years after Wade's death, Elizabeth gave birth at age 49 to a daughter, Emma Claire, after a pregnancy aided by hormone injections that Elizabeth later acknowledged may have been a factor in her cancer. A few days after the birth, John won the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate. That fall, he unseated Republican Lauch Faircloth. At age 51, Elizabeth gave birth to a son, Jack. That year, John was vetted as a potential running mate for Al Gore. A year later, John was running for president himself with Elizabeth's full-throated support. He fell short, but was tapped to be John Kerry's running mate in 2004.

This is well-worn history. Less well-known, but shared in Saving Graces, is the fact that Elizabeth visited Wade's grave in Oakwood Cemetery every day from his burial until Emma Claire's birth, reading the Bible to him and the books on his senior year high school reading list. She did it, she wrote, because she needed to. "There is no other yardstick."

John, an irregular voter to that point, turned away from law and entered politics. He needed to, and Elizabeth seemed to need him to as well—but why?

The explanation lies in Wade's death, which left a void in Elizabeth's life and in John's that they tried to fill with new children and a new challenge beyond anything they'd ever attempted. In grieving over what Wade might've accomplished, they put themselves in his place, and it rekindled old aspirations or lit new ones—we don't know.

We do know that Elizabeth, first via ASG and later as a cancer survivor who never failed to listen when others shared their histories, was answering a call to service, like the one her mother answered whenever a Navy pilot crashed, and she would sit for days with the anguished widow. "She listened to their struggles and their dreams, and really wanted to know," Hargrave McElroy said of Elizabeth. "And she didn't leave them and forget. Their stories were etched on her heart and in her incredible memory."

Public life to Elizabeth was a chance to do what she'd always done, but with greatly expanded reach and purpose: She would help the nation be a caring community for all its people. No one spoke with more passion, or compassion, about the need in a caring country to have affordable, universal health care, for example.

We also know that the Edwardses were a team: John, the "public relations man," as one friend said, was great on his feet and would never, as Elizabeth once told me, wagging her finger when I doubted him, lose a likeability contest. Elizabeth, John's "brain," was the adviser he checked with before he would ever take a position on anything. John was a sponge for data. Elizabeth filled him up.

Together, they spoke up for unions and the poor. They spoke out for civil rights, gay rights and women's rights. They called on their country to mend the divide between "the two Americas," one rich, one poor, that baby boomers properly imagined would be bridged by the end of the 20th century, only to find, decades into their adulthood, that the gap had grown steadily larger.

When the history of the Edwards' generation—my generation—is written, its best chapters will be about the rights of African-Americans, women and the gay community. In this sphere, the "children of promise" have succeeded, though the work is far from finished.

The worst chapters, however, will tell of our failure to bring corporations under control and restore "power to the people." White, straight men are no longer alone at the top, but their values are. At home and abroad, capital married to militarism rules. More people, not fewer, live in poverty, uneducated and afraid.

America as the beacon of freedom—John Kennedy's charge that my generation embraced—is at best a slogan, at worst a lie.

The degradation of America began with Vietnam, when Elizabeth Edwards was coming of age, and it continued decade after decade under Republican and Democratic administrations alike. How many of us thought, as our politicians failed us, that we absolutely could do better—or surely not do worse?

That the Edwardses thought well enough of themselves to believe that in the White House they could right the wrongs and turn the tide of history wasn't folly. Nor was it folly to think they could get there; they very nearly did. The Kerry-Edwards ticket was agonizingly close to victory on election night 2004 before Ohio, mysteriously short of functional voting machines in big-city Democratic precincts, came in late for Bush-Cheney.

John Edwards, had he become president, would not have been the only baby boomer president, nor Elizabeth the only boomer First Lady. They would, however, have been the first and only boomer couple to reach the White House after first committing themselves to a life of family values outside of politics. Whatever else is said about Bill and Hillary Clinton, both were professional politicians from the day they left law school. From the day John and Elizabeth Edwards left law school, they tried to make the world a better place by raising a family in it. Then, after the death of their son, and in the face of Elizabeth's incurable disease, they tried to do more.

"I am not resigned to shutting away of loving hearts in the ground," the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote. She was one of Elizabeth Edwards' favorites. "Down, down, down to the darkness of the grave, gently they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."

"What is the word for the battle-weary?" Elizabeth asked. Her answer: It was holding on to a relationship with her son, with the world.

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