Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities by Elizabeth Edwards
Broadway Books, 224 pages. $22.95. Released: May 8, 2009
Perhaps it is the fact that she has incurable stage four breast cancer that makes her go far deeper than one would expect. But this is not a book describing titillating events. Rather, it is a poetic and heartfelt story about dealing with circumstances that go wildly beyond your control.
Edwards picks out memories from her life that demonstrate how others have processed tragedy. A Japanese woman, about to become a geisha, experienced the atomic explosion in Hiroshima. Scarred with burns on her arms, she was no longer celebrated for her beauty. Instead, she became a dance instructor. As a child, Edwards learned how to move gracefully under her tutelage. The woman also taught her acceptance.
"She accepted her life as it was. If she bore resentment or hatred, she found a way to bury it, to not let it define the rest of her life. And she found the happiest ending now available to her in the pleasures of a simple life, the dignity of her remarkable civility and the absence of pain."
Edwards' father suffered a major stroke that left him paralyzed. Rather than accepting a doctor's dire prognosis, the family chose to support her father as he worked to regain his health. Part of understanding how to be resilient, she believes, is knowing when to accept circumstances and when to change them.
Practicing resilience also means that one must understand how to reframe and accept a new life after tragedy. Cowering in denial is not an option.
These memories are written in one massive exhale. Smoothly, her emotions and memories run together. It feels like a life review, told from the perspective of wise woman.
The tone of the book shifts when she directly addresses the death of her son, Wade. She mentions the role of the wind ("the wind blew across a North Carolina field") several times earlier. It is similar to how Joan Didion repeats phrases for emphasis, but with Edwards it is less self-conscious. The chapter on Wade's death is a climax, underscoring points previously made. The gold in this book is not in how she dealt with grief -- it is in the intangibles: how she dreamt of Wade, how she planted flowers by his gravesite. She illustrates her grief in the description of how she kept his room intact after his death.
"Understanding that he was gone and I was never getting him back was so much easier to accept when I had lost the little Wade but still had the big Wade. Now, with empty arms, I miss them both."
She continues, through her cancer diagnosis and finally, through her husband's "indiscretion." Cancer leaves her pondering an uncertain future. It also provides her with a community of friends, people who are in a similar situation. She can advocate for public policy changes and support those who need help. Up until this time, Edwards has helped those in need - whether they are her family or society-at-large. Here, she begins to step into the center of the frame. Although her advocacy work still coincides with her husband's policies, one senses that this is her own fight.
"If you have picked up this book in hopes that in it there will be details of a scandal, you should now put the book down. This is my story, and my story is filled with pain and anger, with great erasures of my history and new outlines for my future, but it is not filled with the clatter you seek. The story from my side is quite a different story from the one of grocery store papers, a story played out too many times but rarely as publicly as my own."
The above quote is in the final portion of the book. It is an odd placement, considering the vulnerability that she's displayed throughout the rest of the book. It is also a defiant note. No less defiant than the fact that John Edwards is left out of the acknowledgments, though she includes the rest of her family. The details of the affair are not included here, only her reaction to it. Her disgust at the line, "You are so hot," which is what enticed her husband to stray, is palpable. Her point, that political families often attract groupies, cannot be disputed.
Yet these are minor details. Wives of politicians are viewed as props. They must stand alongside their cheating husbands. The indiscretion stripped Edwards of her role as political accessory. She is now her own person. There isn't much here on forgiveness. There's no need to recite platitudes on that subject. Instead, she writes about starting her own furniture store. She does not advertise that she owns this store. She is now a full-fledged individual, not an accessory to John.
Which is why it's unfortunate that the media has completely missed the point, though it's far too subtle to appear in a sound bite. Such a beautifully written and wise book should not be sullied by the trashy world of politics.
On a personal note, before the affair, I've always thought that John and Elizabeth Edwards were soulmates of a sort. At least, that's been their media image. But after reading this book, I couldn't help but think that Wade was her true soulmate. Perhaps like others, I need to be disabused of certain media perceptions.