I met Elizabeth in person for the first time in February of 2001. I visited Washington for a family celebration and had a few hours to myself between functions. She lived a short way from my hotel, drove over and picked me up, and took me to her home for a visit. But it was like meeting a dear old friend. We had been pen pals for six years already—a senate term, a girl's lifetime.
She and John were in a very good place. He was in the middle of his term as North Carolina's senator, a rising star—a situation Elizabeth fully embraced. We had a brief, intense meeting, drank some tea sitting in her living room. I remember fleeting moments of uncertainty, but they vanished quickly; she was very easy to talk with. She had a lot to say and spoke quickly, lots of ideas flying, lots to share, just as it had been in e-mail. We reviewed what we knew about each other, matching a great deal that we had written to the living person in the here and now, able to amplify and clarify and joke as we became comfortable with each other.
I met her young kids, Emma Claire and Jack, and when John came back from a jog he sat with us for a while. We talked a bit about political issues, as well as his relationships with some of the other senators. Elizabeth spoke of meeting the senators and their spouses, and of learning that an astounding fraction of the 100 had suffered the death of a child, as had she and John, and as had my wife Elena and I.
We shared membership in the club no one willingly joins, the club of parents who have suffered the death of a child. That was how we met. When my second daughter, 6-year-old Liza, was dying of leukemia, I fumbled my way onto the Internet and found my way to some province for parents of a dead child. I posted something on a "bulletin board" about my situation, my daughter's impending death, and reached out to these parents who had already suffered what I was soon to face. What exactly I was asking I don't recall; I think it was something about books but really more about solace, how there might be any solace in the midst of anguish.
A number of people responded, and Elizabeth was one. Her response was spot-on. She understood that I was not after books on grieving, not interested in when bad things happen to good people, but rather books that might nourish my soul, fiction or poetry or memoir. We instantly bonded.
She offered me the idea that after our children die, we need not give up the role of parenting, but now, instead of parenting the child, we are parenting the memory of the child. I don't know if she coined the phrase, but she taught it to me. It gave a strong counterpoint to our culture's push to mourn and then get over a loss and be done with mourning. It offers an alternative vision of converting mourning into a continuing bond, to grow through our pain and press on with optimism in a meaningful life while still being connected to the one we miss.
On the listserv we both used, many contributions carried a heavy religious message, and some were very provocative: " ... if your child died before being baptized ... " Or "It was God's will that your child died ... " Members of this club don't need extra doses of pain and alienation. Elizabeth addressed the situation powerfully. She wrote of our group:
"I likened us, elsewhere, to the web of a spider, each strand fragile and vulnerable, yet somehow strengthened by our connections to one another. The whole is still unwieldy, and it must still be treated gently ... [W]hile we pull in and protect our little strand of this web, the whole of us is jeopardized. I ask only for tenderness.
"Perhaps foolishly, I ask for it still ... For me it is not about religion. It is about grace. I honestly believe that if we are not enlightened by the death of our children to the frailty of man, we will never be enlightened. And if we do not respond with compassion to that frailty, we have failed a very easy test. I hope that since the death of my son I have learned a few things about what is important. Maybe what guides physicians is a good guide for all of us: first, do no harm ... We need only examine what we say to see first if it might do harm."
Off list, writing to each other, she welcomed my telling her about Liza, willing to hear of the most harrowing episodes without flinching. I sent her remarks that my wife and I made at Liza's memorial service, and I sent her many of the hundred poems that I crafted in those first months. She told me of reading them to John and both of them weeping, and they joked that if he ever occupied the White House, they'd ask me to be poet laureate. She responded gladly to my curiosity about Wade, describing him and sharing stories and essays he wrote.
Our children each died in 1996. Her Emma Claire was born in 1998, as was my son Solomon, and we were in synchrony in daring to bring new life into the world. When Sol was born, she sent a lovely wooden box, explaining that one of her favorite things of Wade's was a box in which he kept treasured items. In it her note: "Every boy needs a box." Tonight before I sat down to write this, Solomon, now 12, had a trumpet lesson; I noticed that as he sat tall, his feet rested on that box.
It is funny to look at my old e-mail in which I told her that my wife and I are both physicians, and I asked, "What sort of work do you and your husband do?" As she and John entered the public spotlight more and more, my contact with Elizabeth became more sporadic, but when she learned of her cancer, and then of John's infidelity, I reached out to her and we reconnected. I visited friends in North Carolina in 2008 and 2010 and spent several days visiting with her. In 2008, she mourned that the dream house she and John had built was spoiled, even as she showed me all around it, as if rambling through a ruin, the dream dead. She showed me a scrap of paper with a lyric someone had sent her from a Leonard Cohen song, "Anthem":
Ring the bells that still can ring/ Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in.
She found it so apt she had it painted high on the wall in her home. In ways it captures her. She cherished reality without illusions, faith despite suffering, optimism always.
Philip Lister is a child psychiatrist living in New York City. He attended Duke University medical school.