Long before she was a practicing lawyer and a mother, Elizabeth Edwards was a reader and writer working on a doctoral degree in English at the University of North Carolina.
The 59-year-old Edwards calls herself lucky to have been a part of the UNC English department in the early '70s, when professorial giants like Louis Rubin and Louis Leary were in their prime. (Edwards says Leary "was the most important literary academic in my lifetime.")
Edwards did not begin her writing career until three decades had passed and enormous losses had added up. After her son Wade died in a car accident in 1996, Edwards left law to regroup at home. Eight years and a surprising political career later, on the day Sen. John Kerry and his running mate, Elizabeth's husband Sen. John Edwards, conceded defeat in the 2004 U.S. presidential election, Edwards was diagnosed with breast cancer, which would later become incurable bone cancer.
In her first book, Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers, published in 2006, Edwards worked through grief, balancing loss and gain, somehow trying, in that futile human way, to sort out the unsortable. In the span of three years, Edwards' life has only grown more complex, in large part due to her husband's affair with a member of his campaign staff.
In the midst of the humiliating fallout that ensued, Edwards released Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities. It became an open letter to the world describing the intimate marital drama of two people—one who had hurt the other very badly and damaged what could have been an illustrious political career.
While some pondered the "whys" of Edwards' forthrightness, it's easy to see why the terminally ill Edwards, who has stage IV cancer, would feel an urgency to tell her story, and to tell it her way. Edwards doesn't journal, but her books, conversational in style, are analogous to journal entries. Always there is her voice, discursive and explaining—trying to make us see.
She says that she's tried to write in other voices but never found it easy. "I'm so impressed by writers who can write from so many perspectives," said Edwards, "especially those who can cross the sexes; male writing from female."
A dedicated reader of Southern literature, Edwards rates Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird as one of the most important political Southern books of its time. In fact, her son, John Atticus Edwards, known as Jack, bears the name of Lee's celebrated lawyer.
Edwards says Lee's book demonstrates an aspect that is unique to Southern literature.
"There are so many political issues wrapped up in the social fiber of the stories of great Southern writers," she said, "it's almost impossible to write a novel where you don't have some political importance attached to the very core of the social structure."
Edwards calls Eudora Welty, that indubitable master of describing intimate (and yet so strange) familial relationships, her favorite writer. "Eudora Welty has a truly Southern female way of looking at things," said Edwards. "It's the ability of being more cerebral about what's happening around you, when you're not the main actor."
Welty's Delta Wedding is the tale of the Fairchild family, an almost untouchable, dynastic Southern clan. Edwards does not elucidate on why she connects with Welty's females, hungry and eccentric as they are. Perhaps she's conceding a desire not unlike that of the matriarch of the Fairchild family to be able to say of her own family: "Passionate, sensitive, to the point of strain and secrecy, their legend was happiness."
When the subject of the scandal concerning her husband comes up, Edwards remains steadfastly the protective matriarch of a family that includes Cate, 27; Emma Claire, 11, and Jack, 9. "There is a certain amount of noise in the world," she said. "The more public you are, the more noise there will be."
Subject closed. However, there is a bigger issue looming. When asked about how she copes with the cancer, she says at times she forgets about it. But today isn't one of those times. "I just had an X-ray, and that's when it hits me."
Death isn't off topic.
"I don't know how long I've got, but the one thing I know is that like everyone else I will die."
Resilience might be called an effort to anticipate posthumous conversations with her younger children that she can't now have. "The hardest part," Edwards says, her voice breaking, "is to make sure I am there for them in some way."
With the chutzpah of a Southern woman who will continue moving forward despite whatever events may be rocking the foundations of her family, Edwards, recently became a small-business owner, opening a furniture store called Red Window in downtown Chapel Hill.
Edwards says the store pays homage to her mother, a great bargain hunter, and it draws heavily on her mother's ability to make any place feel like home—a vital skill in the military family Edwards grew up in. (Her mother ran a charity store when the family was based in Japan.)
"It's fun, and I want to make certain every day remains that way," said Edwards who will remain in the public eye as she keeps up the store and continues her stint as a senior fellow working on health care at the Center for American Progress. "I never desired any public role," she said, after a long pause.
"But it happened."
Elizabeth Edwards appears at University United Methodist Church, Saturday, Sept. 12, at 3:50 p.m.