It is as though Saving Graces was written by an old friend, and when the book was finished, it was tough to close the cover for wanting to know what would come next. That rarely happens with memoirs, but this one is exceptional. And I say this having never met Elizabeth Edwards in my life. But as an attorney and mother myself, her love of family and her dedication to working on problems with education and poverty is inspiring and familiar in response to needs that I see in my own community.
In Saving Graces, Edwards shares a letter she received from "Steve C."—one of the many who wrote her in support after her breast cancer diagnosis became public—quoting Ralph Waldo Emerson: "You can never do a kindness too soon, for you never know how soon it will be too late."
Edwards must have taken it to heart, because Saving Graces is such a kindness to anyone who has hit a rough patch in the road and had trouble dusting himself off and starting again.
So much of her life, from her childhood as the daughter of a decorated, gregarious Air Force pilot and steady, beautiful mother, traveling from base to base with her close-knit family in any number of places, including the United States and Japan; through to her college years; to meeting John Edwards in law school (she felt they were a mismatch until his sweet peck on the cheek on their first blind date) and their anniversary dinner tradition at Wendy's; to the political campaigns where first North Carolina and then the rest of the nation got a glimpse of the candidate's wife, and the mother of those adorable children riding with their parents on the campaign bus, is laid out.
The chapters dealing with the political campaigns show that Edwards' common sense and real world work in the legal system and in her community made her a valuable sounding board and partner for her husband and his political work. She sat in on policy meetings, and says that she learned much from the assembled experts, but that she also saw so many areas where John Edwards' trial work and exposure to folks in real need of help was invaluable for him.
But it is the rough patches where you get a glimpse of her core.
Saving Graces begins when Edwards finds the lump in her breast while showering—which, for any woman reading this, is the nightmare that we all hope will never happen, but far too often does. But to find such a lump while you and your husband are on such a public stage, campaigning for the vice presidency, talking with thousands of people a day at rallies and on television? How she held up under that pressure from Oct. 21, 2004, to Nov. 3, 2004, the day after the election when she had her initial surgical testing, is detailed in the book, with all of the humor, charm and blunt honesty you might expect.
How the family dealt with the death of their oldest son, Wade, is also in Saving Graces and, if you are a parent especially, it is a difficult read. If this book has a particular fault, it is that the raw emotion in that section forced me to put the book down, and then pulled me to pick it up again.
At one point, she shares an e-mail she had written to a fellow participant of an online grief support group, which reads, in part:
I cannot express how deeply this boy had grown into my being, and how I will suffer his loss every day that I breathe.... The image that I have for our family is grapevines, twisting around each other, interweaving, leaves pushing through until it is impossible to separate the vines without destroying much of the beauty. And this vine was, without warning, ripped from us and from among us. We heal only by growing around the wound, in constant recognition of its absence.
This pain—still so close to the surface and now on the page for the reader, at times with too much detail—is wrenching, and sometimes a very difficult a read. But, this is also what makes Saving Graces such an unusually candid and engaging book.
Edwards writes with a familiarity that draws you into her pain, makes you feel that ache she has still for Wade. This is oddly cathartic for the reader, especially for someone who has had to deal with his own loss. It is the sort of book that will be given in memory of some loved one to hospice centers and grief counseling offices for years to come, because Edwards bares that pain honestly, and details her search for some means of moving forward while still honoring the memory of her child. And in so doing, she has cleared a difficult trail for those who will follow her down such a painful path.
The Edwards' shared work on the educational center that they built in their son's memory at Wade's school seems to have been a spark that lit the political flame for John Edwards, and Elizabeth's support of that work is woven throughout her memoir.
Throughout the book, it is Edwards' empathy toward the needs of others that is most striking. That and her sense of humor, which came in handy when a hairbrush got stuck in the back of her hair minutes before an early morning national television appearance on the campaign trail. (And knowing that such a hairbrush may be pried out of one's hair with a room service fork is an added bonus.)
Edwards talks about campaign staffers (high level and low), family, friends, children, random people met on the campaign trail, the folks bagging her groceries, and nurses during her chemotherapy with the same respect across the board.
If you have worked in a service industry, you understand what this means. Having been a waitress a few times while working in college, I tend to judge folks by how they tip. If you leave a tiny one, I think less of you; if you leave a larger one, that is better. And if you leave it because you understand that folks who wait tables survive financially only because of their tips? Well, that goes a long, long way.
Through reading Saving Graces, I have determined that Elizabeth Edwards is a big tipper for all the right reasons.
It is the little details that show up throughout this book, of family, of friendship and of grace under tremendous pressure and devastating loss, that everyone has to face in one form or another at some point. Through Elizabeth Edwards' memoir, I have learned how truly precious those little moments are—all of them, even the bad ones. That is Wade's gift in this book, through her words, and it is one that I will hold onto dearly.
Christy Hardin Smith is a former attorney who lives in Clarksburg, W.Va., and writes for the political blog firedoglake.com.