How Elizabeth Edwards showed us the distortions of illness and grief.

A study of bereavement.
Dec. 8 2010 11:29 AM

Elizabeth's Legacy

It wasn't her political career but the window she gave us into the reality—and illusions—of dying.

(Continued from Page 1)

My face was tilted toward the stream of water from the showerhead. Water spilled from the corners of my eyes as my fingers outlined the unfamiliar lump in my right breast. Around and around, I traced its edges. Try as I might, it wouldn't go away.

As Joan Didion wrote of her husband John Gregory Dunne's fatal heart attack, "Life changes in an instant." But the trouble with a long death is what to do in the next moment, and the moment after that. How should one—how can one—live with a death sentence? It turns out dying in the modern era looks a lot Hemingway's description of how people go broke: slowly, and then all at once.

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In that slow path, there are as many opportunities for fallibility as there are for grace. I find myself wondering if the intensity of the backlash to Edwards' "choice" suggests that on some level we're looking away from the whole truth. From a healthy distance, the decision seems so black and white: Covering up the affair endangered the Democratic party, if not the nation. Surely we would never have made the decision she did, we think! And so when we distance ourselves from the "wrongness" of Edwards' choice, we distance herself from the calamity of her illness. We're supported in this conviction by the genre of illness memoirs, which create a narrative out of moments of conversion and understanding even as they describe something fundamentally random and mysterious. "All of my old trivial selves fell away, and I was reduced to essence," Anatole Broyard wrote of facing death.

To find the essence, to be reduced—this would, after all, be redemptive. As for Edwards, she was less lyrical, more banal, and perhaps more suggestive. As she wrote in Saving Graces, while waiting for her results she was "more buoyed than worried." After all, "one thing I had learned over the years: hope is precious, and there's no reason to give it up until you absolutely have to." But she continues:

This is where the story changes, of course. The ultrasound, which followed the mammogram that day, looked terrible. The bump may have looked smooth to the touch, but on the other side—on the inside—it had grown tentacles, now glowing a slippery green on the computer screen.

And that is where the story stops being a story, and the lines stop being smooth, and life becomes a series of moments that don't completely connect.

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