Struggles, successes made Elizabeth Edwards a beloved 'everywoman'

Elizabeth Edwards made lemonade, and that's what we liked about her.

She was an anti-Barbie everywoman, plainly sophisticated, even-tempered, complicated, loyal. She dealt with the death of her teenage son, with two bouts of cancer and with her husband's made-for-the-tabloids infidelity in a way both public and dignified. She bared her soul and we became the United States of Empathy.

She died of cancer Tuesday in North Carolina at 61, a lawyer and bestselling author who came to overshadow her husband, former senator and two-time presidential hopeful John Edwards.

She had prepared us in her own endearing way. She left a touching note on her Facebook page Monday, explaining she had stopped treatment.

"The days of our lives, for all of us, are numbered," she wrote. "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."

Her various Facebook fan pages filled Tuesday with hundreds of CAPS-LOCKed Hallmarkish messages from women across the country, love notes that used the same words and phrases over and over: "courage," "strength," "dignity," "inspiration," "grace," "beacon of light."

"Thank you for your example," wrote Miriam Rodriguez.

"How fortunate we have all been to know you," wrote Tammy Garren.

"Because of your strength," wrote Jeannett Day Cassity, "I can trudge on."

She dealt candidly with her disease, and that endeared her to a skeptical public.

"I think that any time that someone can share their journey with cancer in a way that resonates and feels real and truthful, people relate to that and they can empathize with that," said Beth Hardy, spokeswoman for St. Anthony's Hospital, where Mrs. Edwards spoke in 2007 to raise funds to benefit the Breast Center. "They look at somebody like Elizabeth Edwards and they think about their own lives, their own relationships."

"Live until you die, however long that is," she told Oprah Winfrey in 2007. "And that's my advice to people who are facing this diagnosis and to everybody else listening. Live until you die."

When she learned she was ill for the second time in 2007, that the cancer had spread to her bones, she and John Edwards decided not to quit campaigning. He took criticism. She defended him.

"What bothers me (is) the judgment by people who haven't faced it," she told Oprah. "But they're also saying it to the families who decide they're going to stay in their jobs, they're going to continue teaching, or continue painting, or continue whatever their life work is, the thing that helps define who they are."

That, says Dr. Lodovico Balducci of the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center, is an important lesson.

"She showed that cancer should not be the end of an active life of a person," he said. "She demonstrated that there is still life."

Born in Jacksonville, she lived briefly in childhood in Pensacola, the daughter of a Navy pilot. She picked up RC Cola bottle caps when her father was stationed at Pensacola Naval Air Station and turned them in for admittance to summertime movies.

She married John Edwards after graduating from law school, and they both found success. Their son Wade, 16, was killed in 1996 when wind blew his Jeep off a North Carolina highway, and they sat together in their quiet house and watched the Weather Channel, on mute, for months.

John Edwards decided to enter politics and Elizabeth took fertility drugs and gave birth to two more children at ages 48 and 50. She was an important part of his campaigns, and she balanced work on the road and raising two young children.

She played Boggle in hotel rooms on the campaign trail, watched C-SPAN and read books, and sometimes Googled her husband to see what people were saying about him. She defended him in online comments, using her real name, and called into a TV show once to take on Ann Coulter.

And she was a mom, even if she wore a microphone. Like the time in Iowa when she was telling little Emma to sit still and Emma kept sliding out of her chair and the candidate's wife said into the microphone, "That's it, Emma, we're outta here."

She was one of Time magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World in 2007. "Elizabeth Edwards for President" was the headline on a Frank Rich column in the New York Times.

In 2008, after a series of scandalous reports in the National Enquirer, John Edwards admitted he had an affair with a campaign staffer. He said he had told his wife in 2006, but unlike many political spouses, she refused to appear with him when he came clean on television.

She told Oprah she had asked her husband for one gift when they got married. Faithfulness.

"I cried and screamed," she wrote in her 2009 memoir, Resilience. "I went to the bathroom and threw up."

But she did not leave him. Not then.

"This is a life we worked very hard to create," she told Charlie Rose in 2009.

It was complicated, and she admitted so.

"I lie in bed, circles under my eyes, my sparse hair sticking in too many directions and he looks at me as if I am the most beautiful woman he has ever seen," she wrote. "It matters."

In the public eye, she slid from victim to saint. She thought of him as a good man who did a bad thing.

"I have a husband who adores me," she said in January on ABC News. "Who is unbelievable with my children, who's provided for us in ways we never could have imagined. And who has, in times when I've been in enormous pain, with the death of Wade or with the cancer, has been by my side."

She announced their marriage had ended this summer on NBC's Today show.

He was reportedly there with their family in her final days.

Ben Montgomery can be reached at bmontgomery@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8650.

Elizabeth Edwards

Born: July 3, 1949, in Jacksonville, at the naval air station, the first of three children.

Parents: Her father, Vincent Anania, a first generation Italian-American from western Pennsylvania, won the Distinguished Flying Cross in 1959 after bringing home his spy plane that was hit 15 times by North Korean MiGs.

Childhood: As a Navy brat, Elizabeth Edwards grew up at military installations around the world, including two tours in Japan. Her mother hired a trained geisha, a badly scarred survivor of Hiroshima, to teach her daughters Japanese dance, music and how to comport themselves with grace.

Education: She started college at what was then the University of Virginia's school for women, Mary Washington College, but transferred to the University of North Carolina in 1969 when her father was assigned to a ROTC unit there. She graduated with a bachelor's degree in English in 1971. It was at the UNC law school that she met John Edwards.

Family: Elizabeth and John separated in January after he admitted fathering a child with a campaign videographer. Daughter Cate followed her parents into a career in law. A son, Wade, was killed in a traffic accident when he was 16. Elizabeth Edwards had two more children later, giving birth to Emma Claire when she was 48 and Jack when she was 50.

Struggles, successes made Elizabeth Edwards a beloved 'everywoman' 12/07/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 8, 2010 9:19am]

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