Celebrating the Life of Elizabeth Edwards


You cannot change the wind, but

you can adjust the sails.

Elizabeth Anania Edwards is being laid to rest today beside her beloved son Wade.  I don’t think she ever recovered from his death on April 4, 1996:

I suspect there are few better examples of barely functional people than those who have just buried their children.

Mrs. Edwards wants us to remember her for how she lived rather than for how she died.  She decided she would not live out her life as a victim:

There is a personal dignity that comes with resisting the word “victim.”

. . .cancer now has the upper hand, it won’t own me until it finally takes me.  Until then, I will live as fully as I am able. . .

In her book Resilience:  Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities, she shared that her life’s motto came from the fortune cookie of cancer survivor Mark Gorman:

You cannot change the wind, but you can adjust the sails.  That’s what Phil Connor was doing, adjusting his sails, and when he did it, his boat moved in a new direction.

She learned resilience by witnessing her father, who was a retired Naval pilot, deal with illness at the end of his life:

. . .he held on to whatever he had, however meager it was.  He managed somehow to turn whatever he held onto into precisely what he needed to survive. . .the audacity to tell the rehabilitation counselor that he wanted to drive. . .dance with my mother. . .unabashedly flirted. . .he was saying to the world. . .I want to live. . .he always reflected the sheer majesting of living. . .

I have had to use my father’s strength ~ or my mother’s grace as she stood beside him ~ as a touchstone. . .personal courage in the face of impossible odds inspires us to do something we thought we could not do. . .reminds us that what seems like a mountain in front of us can in fact be climbed. . .he was imperfect. . .I learned that perfection was not a requirement of resilience.

Jerome Kern Fantasies

Mrs. Edwards, like many women in my generation, believed she would live the charmed life of a Jerome Kern soundtrack.  She and John met in law school at the University of North Carolina.  The photo above was taken on their graduation day in 1977.  A few months later they married.


The couple became parents to Wade and Cate.  They practiced law, and John was elected to the U.S. Senate.  After Wade’s death, they had Emma Claire and Jack.

2004 Presidential Campaign

In 2004, Sen. John Kerry selected Sen. Edwards to be his running mate.  By the end of the campaign, Mrs. Edwards discovered she had breast cancer on October 21, 2004.

“I Will Live as Fully as I Am Able.”

 Mrs. Edwards longed for the return of the Jerome Kern fairy tale:

. . .we cannot turn back.  This is the life we have now, and the only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation, is first to accept that there is a new reality. . .the more we cling to the hope that these old lives might come back, the more we set ourselves up for unending discontent. . .

My life was and would always be different, and it would be less than I hoped it would be. . .the longer I clung to the hope that my old life might come back, the more I set myself up for unending discontent.  In time, I learned that I was starting a new story. . .

We so desperately want a map that lays out in serene pastels the paths our lives are supposed to take that we create them, we gravitate to them, we embrace and internalize them, all to no good end. . .when the map does not comport with the ground, the map is wrong.  In my life, the map has almost always been wrong.

We will each have hardships that are more difficult than we imagined. . .I have cancer.  It consumes my life in ways I cannot control. . .

Sometimes we have to give ourselves space to grieve what we have lost:  a person, a way of life, a dream.  But at some point we have to stand up and say, this is my new life and in this life I need a new job.

. . .we have to distinguish between those catastrophes we can repair and those that require us to face a new reality.  John and I used to be “fixers”. . .No problem was too small or too large.  If you work hard enough you can fix anything ~ or so we thought. . .

If I had special knowledge about how to avoid adversities, about how to spot the pitfalls of life, I would spot them, I would avoid them, and I would share how it is I have managed that.  I do not. 

Mrs. Edwards passed away at her home in Chapel Hill, NC on December 7, 2010.  She lived each day as fully as she was able.

Sen. Kerry’s birthday is today.  He came to her funeral.

Cate remembered her mother today:

She could bring out the brave in anyone.

She’s been a lighthouse to all of us — a point of guidance when we all feel lost.

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