What pops to mind first, strangely enough, is Elizabeth Edwards playing with her kids.
It was at some campaign event back in 2004, when her husband was trying to be vice president, and Elizabeth was out there playing the good wife, even though everybody involved, including John and Elizabeth, knew she was the smart one, the one who in a just world might have been the face on the ticket.
Instead she stood a little off to the side and a little in back, and her two small children were crawling all over her. She tried to keep them still but after a while she gave in and turned all her attention to them. She clapped for John when everybody else did. But her eyes stayed on the kids.
She died Tuesday at age 61.
From one angle this is perfect evidence that life is not fair. The husband cheated. The mistress had his baby. The aide told their secrets. And the one person worth rooting for in the whole depressing story suffered the most.
Before we drape her in white, we must be honest. She knew about the cheating husband by the time he ran for president in 2008 and still asked people to vote for him. She wrote a book that profited from the whole mess. And if another book on the ’08 campaign is to be believed, she was hard to deal with and sometimes a little nuts.
Balance that against these two facts:
1. Her husband humiliated her in front of the entire world.
2. She was living with cancer, and dying from it.
The cancer came first in 2004, at the tail end of that losing campaign. It returned in 2007, this time digging into her bones, and the doctors said they could treat it but not stop it. Imagine knowing that, on top of all the other things she knew.
More unfairness. In their wedding photos she’s as good-looking as he is. But as often happens, over the years his good looks hung on a little longer, and hers rounded and wrinkled.
But her eyes still glowed and she could still crack a joke, and there was no question who’d be better company over drinks.
They met at the UNC law school, and she became a bankruptcy lawyer while he went after personal-injury cases. Early in their marriage, they had two children, Wade and Cate. But in 1996, Wade died in a one-car wreck on the way to the family’s beach house. He was 16. After that John and Elizabeth quit life for a while.
Then they got up and faced the sun. They decided they wanted more children. And so she took fertility drugs, and she had Emma Claire when she was 48, and Jack when she was 50.
It happened over and over. Her life crumbled, and she made herself a new one. When you do that enough times, the pieces don’t all fit right anymore. But she pressed them together and moved on.
What does someone like Elizabeth Edwards live for? She must have thought she’d be First Lady, even though she knew she could’ve been more. Later she must have felt like a fool, even though she knew how many people still loved her.
Life is not fair, and Elizabeth Edwards is dead at 61. But she had four children, and she lived a fascinating life, and in the end she rose higher than the small people around her. If she had a chance to live that life again, I bet she’d take it.