September 12, 2009
Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities by Elizabeth Edwards
Nonfiction - Memoir
Finished on 9/3/09
Rating: 3.5 (Good)
The bestselling author of Saving Graces shares her inspirational message on the challenges and blessings of coping with adversity.
She’s one of the most beloved political figures in the country, and on the surface, seems to have led a charmed life. In many ways, she has. Beautiful family. Thriving career. Supportive friendship. Loving marriage. But she’s no stranger to adversity. Many know of the strength she had shown after her son, Wade, was killed in a freak car accident when he was only sixteen years old. She would exhibit this remarkable grace and courage again when the very private matter of her husband's infidelity became public fodder. And her own life has been on the line. Days before the 2004 presidential election—when her husband John was running for vice president—she was diagnosed with breast cancer. After rounds of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation the cancer went away—only to reoccur in 2007.
While on the campaign trail, Elizabeth met many others who have had to contend with serious adversity in their lives, and in Resilience, she draws on their experiences as well as her own, crafting an unsentimental and ultimately inspirational meditation on the gifts we can find among life’s biggest challenges. This short, powerful, pocket-sized inspirational book makes an ideal gift for anyone dealing with difficulties in their life, who can find peace in knowing they are not alone, and promise that things can get better.
The older I get, the more I realize I am not alone in the heartbreaking challenges that life continues to throw my way. Just when I hang my head and cry, asking how anyone can go through one more tragedy, someone else is doing the same. We all have our sad stories. Infidelity. Divorce. Illness. Death. As cold as it may sound, that's life—the good, the bad and the ugly. And Elizabeth Edwards has certainly had her share. Death of a child. Terminal breast cancer. An unfaithful husband. I suppose it's the last in that list that gets to me the most. I would like to believe that when someone has buried a child and is suffering the ravaging affects of cancer and chemotherapy, the last thing she should have to worry about is her husband's faithfulness. That's about as low as it gets. I can't imagine the disappointment and heartbreak this woman must have felt when she learned of her husband's affair. And yet she's managed to move forward, still sharing her life with her husband.
There's a bit of a repetitive nature to Edward's story; it lacks cohesion, reading a bit like a collection of essays stitched together to create a book. And yet I've discovered this to be true of many of the books I've encountered over the past four years that deal with the loss of a loved one. It's as if you have to keep stating and restating the facts, reminding yourself of each and every detail, keeping that person alive, if only in the memory of your words. In spite of the occasional repetition, Resilience is a compelling read. There were many instances in which I found myself nodding my head in agreement and sympathy.
When my son Wade died, I spent so many days or weeks or months trying to find a way to make it not so, to have him live. The American poet Edna St. Vincent Millay writes of this desire in her lovely poem "Interim": "How easily could God, if He so willed, set back the world a little turn or two! Correct its griefs, and bring its joys again!" That's all we want. A little turn or two. And Wade is alive, and the cancer is gone, and my husband turns away from the ludicrous words "You are so hot." Just a turn and all these things can go away and we can go back to having a freckled son. Just a turn and the ninety-some years that my grandmothers lived will be mine, too. Just a turn and the misery of having your past and your future taken away by something so unpleasant as a woman with nothing but idle time to spend hanging around outside fancy hotels would be avoided.
But we cannot, they cannot turn back. This is the life we have now, and the only way to find peace, the only way to be resilient when these landmines explode beneath your foundation, is first to accept that there is a new reality. The life the army wife knew before her husband went to war, the life of the patient before the word "terminal" was said aloud, the life of the mother who sat reading by her son's bed and not his grave, these lives no longer exist and the more we cling to the hope that these old lives might come back, the more we set ourselves up for unending discontent.
Let's start with the unavoidable fact: If I had special knowledge about how to avoid adversities, about how to spot the pitfalls of life, I would spot them, I would avoid them, and I would share how it is I had managed that. I do not. I have a lot of experience in getting up after I have been knocked down, but clearly, I do not know anything at all about avoidance. We all tumble and fall. I certainly have, but in truth it is going to happen, in some degree, to all of us. Oh, maybe everyone we care about will live to attend our funerals. Maybe everyone whom you love and who loves you will be loyal to you in every way for every day of your life. Or maybe not.
On the memory of a loved one...
Cormac McCarthy in The Crossing wrote that "time heals bereavement...at the cost of the slow extinction of those loved ones from the heart's memory which is the sole place of their abode then or now. Faces fade, voices dim. Seize them back...Speak with them." I needed him, so I did.
On a new "normal"...
Part of becoming functioning again was accepting what I could not do, much as my father had done as his body failed him. I could not bring him back, as much as I tried, as much as I prayed. I could not let him go, which is what people who cared about me wanted. So many people, thinking they were taking care of me, asked if I was over Wade's death yet. I will never be "over" it, I would tell them, and they would look back at me blankly. If I had lost a leg, I would tell them, instead of a boy, no one would ever ask me if I was "over" it. They would ask how I was doing learning to walk without my leg. I was learning to walk and to breathe and to live without Wade. And what I was learning is that it was never ever going to be the life I had before.
Clearly Elizabeth Edwards is a courageous, loving, devoted mother and wife. But she's also a human being who has suffered a tremendous amount of pain, both physically and emotionally. She has written an honest and engaging memoir that is neither whiny nor filled with harsh, angry words. She is working toward rebuilding her relationship with her husband as she continues to fight her battle with cancer. I don't know how many people could be as strong, or how many could choose to be as forgiving.
Forgiveness, I have been told, is the gift I give to him; trust he has to earn by himself. I am not going to suggest that the process is over. It is long from being over. I am still adjusting my sails to the new wind that has blown through my life.