Yesterday, the world lost Elizabeth Edwards, 61, to cancer. Although her husband, former North Carolina Senator John Edwards, was the one who ran for office, Elizabeth was always an impressive co-pilot, charting her own way as a lawyer and political advisor. While the end of her life was marred by her husband’s cheating scandal with campaign videographer Rielle Hunter (which led to the couple’s separation), Elizabeth’s many contributions should not be forgotten.
- Elizabeth Edwards was born Mary Elizabeth Anania in 1949 in Jacksonville, Florida. Her father was a Navy pilot and the family lived around the world, including Japan, where her mother hired a geisha to teach her daughters dance and music. Elizabeth earned a degree in English from UNC-Chapel Hill and began working on a Ph.D. in English but switched to a law degree. Law school is where she met John and the couple married in 1977. She used her maiden name professionally, working as a bankruptcy lawyer, working for the state Attorney General’s Office, and teaching at the UNC law school.
- John and Elizabeth had two children: Wade, born in 1980, and Cate, born in 1982. Elizabeth left her career permanently after the 1996 death of the couple’s 16-year-old son, Wade, in a car crash. They established the Wade Edwards Foundation, a not-for-profit which built a free after-school computer lab at a public high school in Raleigh. It also offered a short fiction award for young writers. She underwent fertility treatments and had Emma Claire in 1998 and Jack in 2000.
- John Edwards ran for Senate while she was pregnant with Emma Claire and she was often by his side. She was outspoken about many subjects, including her appearance, which was somewhat less “trophy wife” than that of other political wives. “I’m 5-feet-2, dark-haired and could hardly be further from the Barbie figure. I think of myself as a fairly serious person,” she once said. When Ann Coulter called John a “fa***t” on a TV program, Elizabeth called and confronted the conservative shock jock on air. Up until her husband’s cheating scandal surfaced, she kept a Google alert in her name.
- The day after Election Day 2004, Elizabeth learned she had a breast tumor. In 2006, she published the memoir about her battle with cancer called Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers. The cancer later went into remission after radiation and chemotherapy but by 2007, the cancer — treatable but incurable — had returned. In People magazine, she said she hoped to live another eight years until her son Jack graduated from high school.
- In 2009, after John Edwards’ infidelity went public, she published a second memoir, Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life’s Adversities. But Elizabeth lived quietly for the last year of her life: she opened a furniture store in Chapel Hill and her local paper reports said she could be seen shopping with her youngest daughter, Emma Claire, at Target. On Monday, the Edwards family announced she had stopped cancer treatment, as it had spread to her liver, and she posted the dignified Facebook status update, below, about the journey ahead. She passed away in Chapel Hill, surrounded by her family.
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. These graces have carried me through difficult times and they have brought more joy to the good times than I ever could have imagined. The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered. We know that. And, yes, there are certainly times when we aren’t able to muster as much strength and patience as we would like. It’s called being human. But I have found that in the simple act of living with hope, and in the daily effort to have a positive impact in the world, the days I do have are made all the more meaningful and precious. And for that I am grateful. It isn’t possible to put into words the love and gratitude I feel to everyone who has and continues to support and inspire me every day. To you I simply say: you know.
Rest in peace, Elizabeth.