CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – Elizabeth Edwards lost her hair to cancer, her son to an accident, her husband to another woman.
No wonder she called one memoir “Resilience.” And another “Saving Graces.”
Edwards’ death Tuesday at age 61 ended a struggle of extraordinary and multiple dimensions, any one of which might have consumed the more faint-hearted. She had lived side by side with high political ambition, personal betrayal, advancing disease and single-minded determination, and in her last years built a network of supporters who took life lessons from her adversities.
A public figure to the end, Edwards said goodbye to them the night before, online, after doctors had concluded they could do no more to save her. They figured she might have weeks at best; she lived hours.
John Edwards, the man she had advised as a strategist and supported as a spouse through a Senate campaign and two runs for the presidency, joined the family by her side. The couple had separated nearly a year ago, their marriage and their shared dreams of power shattered by his affair with a campaign videographer and his eventual admission that he had fathered his lover’s child.
Elizabeth Edwards became an advocate in her own right for health care reform and for the poor, two issues that had driven her husband, too. In that work, she lacked his clout but also his baggage.
“Our country has benefited from the voice she gave to the cause of building a society that lifts up all those left behind,” President Barack Obama said.
Edwards was calculating and ambitious in her own right, as well. A shrewd attorney, Edwards contributed mightily to her husband’s rise in politics and acted conspicuously to prevent his fall.
In a riveting moment from the Democratic presidential primary campaign, the couple stood together in apparent harmony and loving mutual support in March 2007 to tell the country that her breast cancer, diagnosed in 2004, had returned, spread and could not be cured.
While she pleaded for privacy after revelations of her husband’s adultery, she also wrote a memoir – her second – that discussed how the affair repulsed her. She went on “The Oprah Winfrey Show” to talk about it, but only on the condition that Winfrey not mention the woman by name.
“Nothing will be quite as I want it, but sometimes we eat the toast that is burned on one side anyway, don’t we?” she wrote in the memoir “Resilience.”
Edwards connected easily with the public and her battle with breast cancer resonated. She shared the most intimate details, writing and speaking about the pain of losing her hair and her efforts to reassure her young children about her future.
It was not her first experience publicly dealing with very private matters. She wrote in her 2006 memoir about the death of their son Wade in 1996 and the grief that consumed her for two years afterward.
She and John Edwards met in law school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and married the weekend after they took the bar exam. He gave her an $11 wedding ring and borrowed money from his parents to pay for a brief honeymoon.
Gary Pearce, who advised her husband’s 1998 U.S. Senate campaign, remembered her as fragile and distant in the months before he officially joined the race as the couple grappled with the loss of their son. But she became involved and outspoken about her husband’s career once he bid for office.
“It was clear from the beginning that she was a full political partner with a lot of influence on him,” Pearce said.
With the help of fertility treatments, Edwards gave birth to two more children, Emma Claire, now 12; and Jack, now 10. They joined daughter Cate, 30.
Before her initial diagnosis with cancer, Edwards began writing a letter to her children with advice they could use after she died – such as how to choose a church or a spouse.
“We are not in denial,” Edwards wrote in an updated version of her first memoir published in 2007. “I will die much sooner than I want to.”