facing death, and living

A thin paperback, only 237 pages, Elizabeth Edwards’ “Resilience” was not a book I could breeze through easily. It was written as though she were talking to me, but not seeing me. I might have been a tape recorder capturing her innermost thoughts and feelings, as if their release might ease her chronic pain, more emotional and mental than physical.

Chapters 1 through 6 explored the anguish she endured from the loss of her 16-year-old son Wade to a car accident, whose cause might have been considered “an act of God.” “Wade was driving to the beach when he died. The invisible wind crossed the eastern North Carolina fields and pushed his car off the road, and he could not right it and it flipped and, crushed, it fell in upon Wade, and he died. The invisible wind. The hand of God? The hand of Satan that God has loosened on Job? Is his death a response to his or our failings, or is it a test of God? How can I lean on a God who had taken this righteous boy, or even on one who had allowed him to be taken?” After much soul-searching, Edwards decides that the God about whom she was taught is not the God of whom she has now gained a better understanding.

“God…does not promise us protection and intervention. He promises only salvation and enlightenment. This is our world, a gift from God, and we make it what it is. If it is unjust, we have made it so. If there is boundless misery, we have permitted it. If there is suffering, it came from man’s own action or inaction. Cain killed Abel; God did not. Wade’s death didn’t belong to God. It belonged to this earth. I could still pray for Wade’s eternal soul because I no longer had to blame that same God to whom I prayed unsuccessfully for his return to life.”  

While she continues to reference her son’s death through the remainder of the book, Edwards also speaks at length of her bout with incurable breast cancer. In the midst of John Edwards 2004 vice presidential campaign, Elizabeth learned she had breast cancer. It seemed that in 2005 she’d been cured. But 2007 saw its return. Among other things, she discusses her struggle in coming to terms with death. On one hand it is not totally unacceptable, for “Death looks different to someone who has placed a child in the ground. It is not as frightening. In fact, it is in some way buried deep within you almost a relief. The splendid author Mark Helprin wrote, in the introduction to “Almost Spring” by Gordon Livingston, ‘If you were on a ship battered by immense waves (and, believe me you are) that swept your child from your arms would you not (given that you had no others for whom to remain) throw yourself into the deep, hoping for the chance that in the vast black ocean you might grab onto him? Comforted just to know that you would suffer the same fate? And if you had to remain, to protect others, would you not dream all your life of the day when, your responsibilities over, you would finally get to the sea?’ It is not a death wish. It is an appreciation that there might be in death some relief that life itself could never offer.” But Edwards concludes that her son’s death is a reminder not to take the gift of life for granted.

“I knew that I have to get ready to die. There is still no prognosis on which I can rely. All I know is that it will be at my door more quickly than I want. I don’t think, as it comes, I will have my father’s grace. Now, despite my words that I have a reason why death would not be so terrible, I want to live. I admit that I spend a great deal of time pretending that I would be fantastically lucky to live a decade, that I would be happy to have another decade when I know I want much more. But just as there is more than a decade, there is also less. There are moments when I believe death is only a whisper away. I try to get the teeter-totter to balance somewhere in the middle; it is rarely possible. When my mind teeters to death, I push off as hard as I can, trying to land on life. Mostly I can do that.”

Elizabeth Edwards comes to terms with her life, as it is. She has adopted lines from “Anthem,” a song by Leonard Cohen, as her anthem. She has had them inscribed high up on her kitchen wall as “…a reminder that the pain, the loneliness, the fear are all part of the living. There is no such thing as perfection, and we have a choice about how we integrate the imperfect into our lives.” Her anthem reads “Ring the bells that still can ring. Forget your perfect offering. There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

A stranger who happened to be in the audience during Edward’s speech at the Cleveland City Club in March, 2007, inspired her to work harder in her efforts to bring affordable health care to the unlucky among us who go without. After the luncheon speech, the stranger whispered in Elizabeth’s ear “…I am afraid for my children. I have a lump in my breast, but I cannot get it checked. I have no insurance.” When she went in search of someone who could help, the stranger disappeared into the crowd. And so it was that Elizabeth felt the woman believed “…that we live in a country where things can change if we just whisper in the right person’s ear.”

I share “Resilience” with you because there might be a lesson in it for all of us, for we begin to die the minute we are born. Facing imminent death, Elizabeth Edward focuses on living…

a new day always dawns…hugmamma.

who i am

Girls become women; boys become men. In the beginning it seems to just happen. Females emulate their mothers; males, their fathers. Their traits become ours, seemingly by osmosis. As children we don’t stop to differentiate between good and bad characteristics. What we see becomes what we are and what we do. As we grow older and experience life outside our family, we begin to compare ourselves with others, our lives with theirs. We see what we like and don’t like about us, about them.

I think only in older age, especially if we have children, do we understand those who walked in “our shoes”, before we did, our parents. My father died when I was one, so I never knew him. My mom was my world, in good times and bad. Throughout my 50’s I gradually became aware of the legacy she left behind.

Widowed at 30, nine children to raise, my mom managed with the help of Maryknoll nuns who ran the orphanage where she worked. She was laundress, part-time cook, and part-time chaperone. She never missed a day on the job, driving an hour from our home in the city, to the orphanage in the country. As a toddler, I accompanied her, my days spent rolling around in huge crates filled with freshly laundered clothing and linens. The youngest orphans were my playmates; the older ones my babysitters. They were my family, since most of my siblings had long since left home.

My mom’s car was our “bread and butter,” as she would repeatedly remind us. It was essential to our subsistence, getting her to and from work.  There was no AAA in those days, or if there was, we were too poor to subscribe. My mom changed her own flat tires, tinkered under the hood, and faithfully had the car serviced. With a sergeant’s precision she showed us how to wash and wax the car.

We would drag out the bucket, the hose, the detergent and lots of “elbow grease.” Along with two siblings, a brother and sister who were still in school, we cleaned every inch of our two-toned blue, Dodge sedan, until it glistened under the bright, tropical sun. We often looked like wet fish, having pelted each other with water from the hose or soapy water scooped from the bucket. When we were seized by fits of laughter, my mom’s eyes would twinkle and a huge grin would emerge to temporarily smooth away the frown lines deeply imbedded above her brows.

Active in our church community, my mom served as president of 2 women’s groups. She allowed me to invite foreign students to live with us for several days or weeks, giving them an opportunity to experience life in our country. It wasn’t unusual for my mom to invite total strangers into our home, like a young, handsome, Chinese man who was selling Life magazine subscriptions. We couldn’t afford it, but my mom felt sorry and subscribed anyway. To thank her, the nice man returned with an ice cream cake, which we happily devoured. One particular Jehovah Witness was a regular visitor on Sundays. A devout Catholic, my mom still listened when others spoke of their faiths. I’m ashamed to say we children hid, hoping they would go away. My mom suffered painful arthritis as far back as I can remember. At 3 a.m. when I’d head to the kitchen for a drink of water, my mom would be pacing the floor, attempting to walk off the unrelenting ache in her knees. She’d moan heavily, sometimes crying. I was too young to be of much comfort. My mom sat in the bleachers, watching with pride as I led the crowds in cheers for our team. She sewed one-of-a-kind clothing, some “hit the mark”, others not so much. Strumming the ukulele, she’d harmonize old Hawaiian songs with me, a favorite being “Ke Kali Ne Au.”

Without realizing it, my mom was bestowing me with her strengths. A single parent, she forged a life for herself and her children as best she could. She wasn’t above accepting help, nor did she shy away from helping herself and others. While raising us, I can’t recall my mom investing in much time bemoaning her plight. She was a handsome woman who prided herself on how she styled her hair, and how she wore her makeshift dresses.

I may not mimic my mom in every way, but like her I’m a strong woman with a soft underbelly. She has instilled me with her graciousness toward others, her “funny bone,” her songbird’s voice, her sense of style, and her gourmet sensibilities. And like my mom, I have faults. While she didn’t apologize for them, I’m certain she asked God to forgive her trespasses. Like her, I pray to be pardoned for my transgressions. 

Foremost among the lessons I have gleaned from my mom’s life  is compassion, for myself and others. Because her journey was fraught with more “lows” than “highs,” it’s a wonder she lived well into her 80’s. She was plagued by health issues, family discord, and personal demons. Besides which, my mom never remarried, remaining a widow until the end. For 50+ years, she shouldered her burdens without the love and companionship of a soul mate. So if she floundered, who could stand in judgement? “For unless you have walked in someonelse’s shoes…”

who I am is owing in part, to her…hugmamma.

a godsend, so cherish

Our daughter was born after my husband and I were married for 16 years. She was our “miracle baby” for we thought we’d never be parents. Had she not happened, we might have adopted. I did not want to endure testing to learn why we were not blest with a child before her, nor did I want to subject myself to methodical, medical procedures to become pregnant. Before she was born, I can remember sitting in our tiny, 100-year-old, New England, church during a Mass where 8 year olds made their First Holy Communion as Catholics. Tears welled in my eyes for I wished one day that my child would be among the communicants. From my lips to God’s ears, for my prayer was answered. I have always felt that our daughter was a gift that He placed in our care. She is ours to nurture and love, but she is not our possession, she is God’s gift. And “what he giveth, he can taketh away.” So I cherish our daughter more than life itself, and I never take one day with her for granted.

“Resilience” is written by Elizabeth Edwards, infamously known as the woman with incurable breast cancer, whose husband had an affair during his bid for the 2008 presidential campaign. They are now divorced since efforts to heal their marriage were unsuccessful. Elizabeth has borne these crosses publicly, but she has carried another in the privacy of her own heart, the untimely death of her teenage son. How can any mother, or parent, recover from such loss? Elizabeth shares her thoughts, on her own journey towards rebound.

Wade was 16 when he died. On April 4th, 1996, the wind blew across a North Carolina field and pushed his car slightly off the road. Slightly but not enough. When he tried to bring it back on, the car flipped. The air bag came out, the seat belt held, but the roof collapsed on him. The other boy walked away. Some dishes he was taking to the beach for us were unbroken. Our boy was killed instantly. It wasn’t speed, it wasn’t inattention, it was a straight road on a clear afternoon, and it simply was.

And what that wind took at Easter was a cherished boy, a remarkable child with the character of a man. I try to find, in this narrow place, a way to explain his virtues. He was a loving son and brother; holding our hands, hugging us, no matter who was around to see. He was a loyal friend, always there when his friends needed him, but never succumbing to peer pressure. He never drank or smoked. When a parent who came on the accident asked if drinking was involved, the boys there all answered, “Wade Edwards? No way.” He usually drove home those who did drink. He was intelligent and determined. His conversation in the car that day was about how he wanted to be a lawyer; but he didn’t want to take anything from his parents, he wanted to do it all himself, like his father had. He was humble and shunned the spotlight. During the week before he died, his English class studied “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” by Ernest Hemingway. He participated in four days of discussion but never mentioned once that he had climbed Kilimanjaro with his father the previous summer. How many among us could have sat quietly? He went to Washington as one of ten national winners of an essay contest two weeks before he died. He did not even tell his closest friends, who only later saw him on television. He was fair-minded. When asked on Martin Luther King Day how we could make the world a better place, he answered, “Look at the inside of people, not the outside.” He was seven years old when he wrote that. Though he had many gifts, he never thought of himself as the tiniest bit better than anyone else. And he chastised those who treated others poorly.

I have tried to think about the nature of the bond between us. I guess the fact of “bond” assumes we are two people, such as would need a bond to hold them together. And I never really felt that degree of separateness that lets you describe the existence of a bond between two different things. His joys were my joys, his pains were multiplied to be my pains. I woke to him and slept only after his lips grazed mine. As private as he held some details of his life, protecting those he cared about from my judgment, his broader life was open, bare before me. I was the witness to all things he valued, most of which were intangible. His weakness, his strength, his vulnerability (which had worried me so), his sense of who he was and what this living business was all about, he laid that open. The truth of life, I would have guessed, could not be found out in sixteen years, and we would be fortunate to have a glimpse in sixty. Somehow, this child knew. Knew that we all fought too much over foolishness, that our vanity and our insecurities kept us from truly helping one another, that true love and friendship were marked by humility and loyalty that disregarded self-interest. And he more than knew these things, he lived his way. His mark will endure, because only these truths of life do endure. The good we do really is eternal, as we had told him, and now that axiom is a charge to us–not just to keep his memory, but to live his life message.

We know that we can never make sense of his loss. He had done it all right. Of all he wanted, he wanted most to be a father someday. And what an unbelievable father he could have been with his compassion, his warmth, his patience. He was a rare gift.

He wrote in a journal during Outward Bound when he was 15:  “More than any other goal that I have set for myself I want to show my love and appreciation to my family for all that they have done for me. I know that I don’t deserve all that I get but I hope that I will someday be able to say that I deserve it. I really want to do something great with my life. I want to start a family when I grow up. I am going to be as good a parent to my kids as my parents are to me. But more than anything, when I die, I want to be able to say that I had a great life. So far I have had a wonderful life and I hope it keeps up.” Well, it didn’t keep up as long as it should have, but we are thankful for what he left us. And he left everyone he touched the better for knowing him. We stand a little straighter in his shadow.

Our daughter has blessed our lives in EXACTLY the same way that Wade blessed the lives of the Edwards family. She has always been singular in her demeanor. She leads, without pressure. She’s seen, without being showy. She’s considerate of others, without their knowing. She gives, without expectations. She laughs, cries, worries, endures pain, gets sick, has self doubts. She is, as a choreographer recently told her, “genuine.” Our daughter is that, on and off the stage. Who you see is exactly who you get. She is a melding of my husband and I, but there’s a quality, an innate God-given sense that she is but an instrument of his handiwork. While proud of her accomplishments for one so young, our daughter is humbled when she sees others as accomplished as her. She easily relinquishes “center stage”, professionally and personally, giving others their moment in the “spotlight.” She has never been about herself, she has always been about others, even as a child.

I am a better person for knowing her…hugmamma