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Guest Post: Learning from Elizabeth Edwards

Published: December 14, 2010 | Last Updated: July 25, 2020 By | Reply Continue Reading

The death of Elizabeth Edwards led many women to think about the meaning of their own lives, their legacy to their children, and the way they might respond to unimaginable tragedy. Many were amazed at the strength and grace Elizabeth Edwards demonstrated in light of the loss of a child, a devastating diagnosis of terminal cancer, and a crushing betrayal by her husband of more than 30 years.

Her death also has led many women to reflect on their own friendships. Three people delivered eulogies at Elizabeth Edwards’ funeral: One was her daughter Cate, and the other two were close friends. 

In her last Facebook message, Elizabeth Edwards wrote: “You all know that I have been sustained throughout my life by three saving graces – my family, my friends, and a faith in the power of resilience and hope.”

When I read Diane Auer Jones’ essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education, her eloquent thoughts about Elizabeth Edwards being the kind of friend we would all like to have resonated with me. I asked Diane if I might share her post here and she graciously agreed. Thanks, Diane! ~Irene

Learning From Elizabeth Edwards
By Diane Auer Jones

I am saddened by the Elizabeth Edwards’ death. I never knew her personally, but whenever I saw Elizabeth Edwards on television, or read something she wrote, or saw her from afar during her husband’s days in D.C., I couldn’t help but think that she is one of those women who I’d want to have as my friend. There was just something about her that made her seem wise and likable and regular, despite the wealth that she and her husband had accumulated and the time they spent in the public eye. To me, Elizabeth Edwards seemed like the real deal-just another mom wanting the best for her children and trying to hold it all together despite the enormous tragedies she had faced and the challenges typical of public life.

None of us will ever know what went on in the Edwards’ home, or how Elizabeth really felt about her husband’s lies and betrayal during those dark moments of discovery and public humiliation. Under circumstances that would make some women want revenge, Elizabeth chose a higher road. She didn’t deny her pain or pretend that there weren’t moments when she had to struggle to get out of bed or to keep from screaming. But she focused her energy on protecting her children, establishing her own identity, and coming back to life as the new person she was forced to become. How sad that she needed to figure out how to live so that she could, for the benefit of her children, make preparations to die.

I was in the locker room at the gym when I learned that she had died. Normally the television is on in the background while the morning crowd rushes through our individual routines and on to work. On this morning, though, someone turned up the volume so that we could hear the story over the constant drone of showers and hairdryers. The reporter talked about the letter that Elizabeth had written to her children to ensure that they would grow with her spirit and values, even in her absence. I’ll admit that I’m at a stage in life when I get misty-eyed over Hallmark commercials, but even the young women around me were dabbing at their dribbling mascara while listening to this story. Hairdryers were turned off.

Elizabeth Edwards seemed infinitely human and, through her letters, will remain so not only to her children, but also to their children and generations to come. I hope the Edwards’ children will always be able to hear their mother’s voice when they read the words she so lovingly wrote for them.

The reporter provided a sample of what was contained in the pages of the letter, but for some reason, I can’t stop thinking about the fact that included among the really big deal sort of things were instructions for coring a head of lettuce and picking the right church. I don’t know why I can’t stop thinking about those two things. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to do either properly.

I once thought that everyone should have a bucket list, and not just when you think you’re about to kick it. By then it can be too late. After hearing Elizabeth Edwards’s story, I now feel that maybe the bucket list isn’t so important. Instead, perhaps more important than focusing on what I want to do before I die, it might be better to think about what I might want to say even after I am gone. There is no guarantee that in the end, there will be the time or opportunity or even the ability to say all of the things we want our loved ones to remember.

My children are grown, so unlike Elizabeth Edwards, I don’t need to think about words that will guide my sons through the difficult teenage years they will navigate in my absence. My sons have heard the family stories over and over again, and I’ve been pretty good about keeping photo albums updated. We’ve talked about all of the big stuff a million times and I can see in their words and actions that most of the values we tried to instill are finally coming through. Not all, but most.

Instead, it’s the small stuff that I want to explain to them. Surely some day they will wonder why I have a plastic Captain Planet ring in the top corner of my jewelry box. They might want to know the family recipes for stuffing and Christmas frittata. They might eventually even want to know how to properly care for a wool sweater. Some of the messages I’ve tried to deliver might sound different when my sons have their own spouses and children to love. It isn’t that I think I’m kicking it any time soon, but one never knows the future. After all, I ride in D.C. cabs.

Elizabeth Edwards reminds us that while we cannot control what others do, or prevent tragedies, or determine our own destiny, we can control the way in which we choose to respond to life’s challenges. She tells us that there is life even in the process of dying. She reaffirms that a mother’s work is never done. She reminds us that there really is a correct way to core a head of lettuce.

Rest in peace, Elizabeth Edwards, and may your children continue to learn from you through all of the days of their lives.

Diane Auer Jones is president of Washington Campus and former assistant secretary for postsecondary education at the U.S. Department of Education. This post previously appeared in the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with the author’s permission.

Read Diane’s previous post on The Friendship Blog:

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