Saturday, July 21, 2007

"The Nights and Days Of Elizabeth Edwards" (with audio Podcast)

Wall Street Journal:

At a cabin on a recent weekend, Elizabeth Edwards and her 7-year-old son Jack are working on a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle, while 9-year-old daughter Emma Claire is drawing animals on a piece of paper. Returning from a five-mile run, presidential candidate John Edwards raids the refrigerator and plops down in his sweaty clothes to munch on sugar snap peas at the table.
"You're going to be at the hospital, right?" Mrs. Edwards asks him, nervous about the bone scan she faces in a couple days to determine if her incurable cancer has spread further. A concerned look crosses their daughter's face. "Mommy's getting a test," Mrs. Edwards says reassuringly.

When Jack asks at another point who will be his children's grandma because she'll be dead, Mrs. Edwards chokes up, unable to answer.

Mrs. Edwards's world these days is jam-packed with incongruous experiences. In public, she says she's continuing to campaign for her husband's presidential bid because she doesn't want to let cancer win before it kills her. She tells voters on the stump that her husband's campaign is a "calling" worthy of "my precious time."

Privately, she is juggling the campaign with the fallout of her disease, her decision and her day-to-day life. Mrs. Edwards says she doesn't see herself as a cancer victim and that she isn't letting it take over her life.

Between campaign stops and monitoring political blogs, she is working on a "dying letter" to her three children -- a "guide to life" she started before her diagnosis but which takes on more poignancy now. Her advice runs from balancing work and family to telling her children they should always wear solids instead of stripes or plaid -- otherwise, she warns, you'll look back at old photos and cringe at what you're wearing. She is sorting out her and her children's possessions -- clothes, papers, photographs -- and boxing them to save after her death.

On the campaign trail, the cancer diagnosis has meant a skyrocketing level of attention that also comes at a cost. As crowds flock to see her at campaign stops, people push greeting cards, cancer remedies, prayers and children on her. Last week, she picked up a boy for a picture and then worried, "Maybe I shouldn't have done that." She's not supposed to do any lifting or actions that could break her bones, where the cancer has spread.

"A lot of sad stories in a row -- that wears on you," she says. "But it's not a burden. I'm part of a community that holds each other up, and it's been great to be held up too." Still she has confided to her best friends, "I'm so tired of hearing every day that I'm going to die." Those close to her say Mrs. Edwards is committed to living a life full of energy, optimism, and normality.

Her sister Nancy Anania initially worried that the campaign would take too great a toll, though she says she has now come to believe that "the campaign energizes her."

Mental-health experts who specialize in children with dying parents are watching Mrs. Edwards with great interest.

"Is Elizabeth Edwards doing what's best for the kids? That's hard to say," says Lynnette Wilhardt, clinical director for Kids Konnected, a support group for children who have parents with cancer. "If the kids are missing a normal life with great memories, it's selfish. If the kids are used to campaigns, they would be stressed if their parents' lives suddenly shut down."

Some in the Edwards campaign fear that rival camps are using Mrs. Edwards' cancer to undercut fundraising. They worry their rivals might be suggesting that money to Mr. Edwards will be wasted should he pull out if his wife's condition worsens.

In series of interviews, including an afternoon by the lake and rides through three states on the campaign, Mrs. Edwards acknowledges the criticisms. "I worry if this is right, but I don't have any good choices," she says.

The Edwards are aware that historical statistics indicate that stage-4 breast-cancer patients have only a 20% chance to survive beyond five years. "That just doesn't apply to me," says Mrs. Edwards. "My job is to stay alive until the medicine and research catch up."

When asked if he could envision winning the White House without Elizabeth in it, Mr. Edwards shoots back, "I reject that possibility." The couple will celebrate their 30th anniversary at the end of this month, and plan on eating double cheeseburgers at Wendy's (a tradition since their first anniversary) and renewing their vows.

"John just can't face that Elizabeth won't be around," says longtime friend Hargrave McElroy, who lived near the Edwards for many years and whose children played together. "Elizabeth is getting her ducks in a row ... and isn't tiptoeing around death."

Politically, Mrs. Edwards is using the focus on her to advocate her husband's policy positions, particularly on health care, and to challenge his critics. She's telling her big crowds on the stump that her husband will be a better advocate for women than his rival Hillary Clinton. Earlier this week, Mrs. Edwards received a flurry of attention when she said Mrs. Clinton is dodging women's issues because she is trying to "behave like a man" to show she can be "commander in chief." A new commercial began airing in New Hampshire this week that highlights the couple's 30-year marriage and alludes to their reaction to dealing with her incurable cancer. "John can stare the worst in the face and not blink," Mrs. Edwards says in the ad.

Elizabeth Edwards first appeared on the national stage in 2004 when her husband became the running mate of presidential candidate John Kerry. A lawyer who had quit practicing after her 16-year-old son Wade was killed in a car accident, she showed up at campaign events with their college-aged daughter Cate and two blonde-haired toddlers she'd had with the help of infertility treatments.

She insisted on being involved in daily scheduling calls and was her husband's most trusted adviser.

The day after the election loss, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. She endured a grueling year of treatment that included surgery, radiation and chemotherapy. Mrs. Edwards emerged to write her bestselling autobiography "Saving Graces," attracting huge crowds to her book-tour appearances. "Just like that, life has found its cadence again," Mrs. Edwards wrote in the final chapter of her book. "The cancer seems to be gone."

Mr. Edwards's strategists planned to make her a central feature of the campaign, believing both Democrats and Republicans could identify with her experiences, including a dead child, breast cancer, infertility, weight-loss struggles, aging parents, mother to both adult and young children, childhood of moving constantly as a Navy brat. "Elizabeth would be the A-number-one top surrogate for John," says Jonathan Prince, deputy campaign manager.

Then in March, she broke a rib while playing with her young son and getting a hug from her husband. She visited a doctor and discovered something that could be cancer on her X-rays. The next day, Mr. Edwards went with his wife for complete body scans. The cancer had metastasized. The couple faced the media on March 22 and explained that they would continue.

Behind the scenes, campaign staffers were thrilled at the surge in interest and Mrs. Edwards's "high likeability," but worried that "too much exposure could cause a backlash," according to one adviser. Mrs. Edwards wanted to be open about the cancer recurrence but didn't want to give specific details on her treatment or prognosis. "'Let's follow Elizabeth as she goes through her cancer' would be almost exploitive," she told them.

In boxes spread over a basketball court in the gym on their Chapel Hill estate, Mrs. Edwards is dividing clothes from each of her children into what should be kept and what can be given away. Otherwise, "John would just throw all this out," Mrs. Edwards says. She especially wants the family to keep the Halloween costumes she made for each of her four children.

When she finds Wade's baseball cards, she presents them to Jack. A few minutes later, she hears Jack and Emma Claire fighting over them. "I want something of Wade's too," her nine-year-old daughter cries. "You're right," Mrs. Edwards tells her, dividing the cards.

Inside the house, she's goes through piles of books, including many given to her by her mother, first editions of poetry by Sara Teasdale and Edna St Vincent Millay and the first American edition of "Ulysses." She has told her husband and children they need to keep them at least 10 years before they can be discarded -- in the hope her family will treasure them as much as she does. "I love my books," she says. Like most candidates' spouses, Mrs. Edwards is traveling the country on behalf of her husband. Just this week, when she landed in Washington, D.C. on Monday night, she hurried to call the two younger children at 9 p.m., catching them right before bedtime. Then she had a 10 p.m. dinner with Cate, who's working in Washington this summer.

When Mrs. Edwards is home, she runs the younger children to ball games and play dates. This past Wednesday, she took Emma Claire and Jack to the toy store, picked up flowers at the grocery store and visited Wade's grave at the cemetery. It was her late son's birthday. Then Mrs. Edwards drove a six-hour round trip from Chapel Hill to Roanoke so she and the children could visit Mr. Edwards, joining him on his "poverty tour" and a bluegrass music concert.

On Thursday, she was back on a plane to Oklahoma City to give a keynote speech at the meeting of Compassionate Friends, a group supporting parents whose children die young.

When Mr. Edwards calls her (as he does each time he takes off and lands on a plane), she quizzes him about a blog posting she has seen on a Web site: "Are we on top of this?" she asks. Mrs. Edwards remains her husband's most important adviser.

At the computer, Mrs. Edwards also is working on the "dying letter" to her three children. Calling up her letter to her 25-year-old daughter Cate, she corrects a typo and re-reads her advice on church. "We raised you in the Methodist church to give you a foundation, but ultimately you need to re-examine what choice of church is right for you."

Preparing to go back out on the campaign trail in a few days, Mrs. Edwards lines up a string of events for the children-water parks, movies, beach trips -- to keep them so busy they won't miss her. Babysitters, family friends or campaign staffers fill in when Mrs. Edwards is away. Until she leaves, however, Emma Claire doesn't want to do things with anyone else, even her dad. "No, I want Mom to do this with me," she says. Mrs. Edwards rushes in. "That's sweet but bittersweet," she says later. "Emma Claire and I know one day I won't be there."

For the weekend after July 4, Mr. and Mrs. Edwards carve out time for a family vacation. Before loading up the car, she prints off and reads a memo to Mr. Edwards, which outlines factors to consider in deciding his position on new taxes of private-equity and hedge funds. In the car, she alternates the radio stations between a BBC report on oil-rich countries and a Hannah Montana song on Radio Disney.

On Saturday, the family hangs out at the New Hampshire cabin owned by a campaign supporter most of the day to swim and lounge around. They won't even turn on the television so as not to be distracted by any political news.

Still Mr. and Mrs. Edwards can't help but talk about the presidential race. They notice a magazine with Mrs. Clinton on the cover. They brainstorm about upcoming themes for Mr. Edwards.

By Monday, the family returns home for an important medical test for Mrs. Edwards, a CT scan of her bones to determine if the cancer has spread. Mr. Edwards accompanies her, though she sends him out to get lunch and to tape some footage for campaign commercials, while she waits for the liquid drink needed for the scan to get into her system. Her husband returns for the scan, and stands beside her as they both try to see if there are bigger or new dark spots on the film.

The tests appeared to show no change in her cancer.

On the campaign trail, Mrs. Edwards shows no symptoms of the cancer's recurrence or the treatment regime of a daily chemotherapy pill. She's showing a slimmer version of herself -- not from being sick but from a year of calorie counting. In her effort to stay healthy and lose weight, the campaign vehicle is stocked with green peppers, bananas, raw almonds and bottled water for her. Down by 65 pounds, she recently sent out bags of old clothes in assorted sizes, some unknown, because "I had cut the sizes out of the biggest ones."

Her first stop is a "house party" in Bedford, where more than 200 are packed in, and a bevy of TV crews are waiting.

She starts by telling the crowd she believes her husband has the best answers for the country and will make the best president. Then she adds, "I have a lot of ways I could be spending my time. I believe this is not a waste of time. My commitment to this is complete."

Mrs. Edwards asks for questions. One man throws up his hand, "My biggest question is how are you feeling?"

"I feel well, thank you," answers Mrs. Edwards. The room erupts in cheers.

After her remarks, dozens of people push to talk with her and have their pictures taken with her. Some with tears in their eyes tell her about loved ones they've lost to cancer or children who died young. Others confide in her their own cancer treatment or details on promising new therapies. A woman on the West Coast whipped up her shirt to show Mrs. Edwards her breast-cancer scar.

In the steamy room, Mrs. Edwards doesn't shed her suit jacket though sweat is running down her beet-red face. Mrs. Edwards is hiding her swollen arm that's filled with liquid from past cancer treatment on her lymph nodes.

Once back in the car to the next event, Mrs. Edwards puts her dripping-wet hair next to the air-conditioning vents, making an impromptu blow dryer. As she glances through the latest gifts, she grimaces. "Saint Elizabeth is too one-dimensional, and it's really not me ... I have to start cussing or something ... People are just too darned nice to me since I've been sick."

While she was campaigning in Kentucky recently, a woman grabbed Mrs. Edwards around the neck and declared: "In the name of Jesus Christ, remove this cancer from Elizabeth's body."

"I don't pray for my cancer," Mrs. Edwards says, reflecting on that encounter. After her son's death in a freak car accident, "I had to come to grips with a God who allows Wade to die, who doesn't intervene ... If I could have a prayer answered, it wouldn't be for my cancer, it would be for Wade ... but that wasn't God's will."

Still Mrs. Edwards has her moments of doubt. When her sister Nancy visited a few weeks ago, the energetic campaigner broke down. "I don't know that I'll see Jack graduate from high school," she cried.

For now, Mrs. Edwards is ramping up her schedule. Over the summer with the children out of school, she plans to take them on the road with her. In the fall she will home-school them with the help of a tutor. Mrs. Edwards says she is already teaching them an important "life lesson: when something bad happens, you don't give in."

She says she will enthusiastically help her husband, despite cancer's recurrence. "I try to make the best of it by translating interest in me into John's campaign," Mrs. Edwards says. "All it does is give me visibility -- and that's an opportunity I'd happily give up."

Then she's off to give a speech, one that she wrote herself in a hotel room at 2:45 am the night before. She has carefully packed her bags, making sure she has her cancer drugs.

"She isn't letting cancer dominate her life," says close friend and former campaign adviser Jennifer Palmieri. "But Elizabeth will never again have a carefree day."


Monica Langley describes the time she spent with Elizabeth Edwards, watching her balance her husband's presidential campaign, her children and her cancer.

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