Monday, December 13, 2010
I am sad -- and conflicted about my grief -- about Elizabeth Edwards
The news of Elizabeth Edwards’s passing hit me unexpectedly hard. Like a gut punch hard. Which I know is a bit dramatic, considering I’ve never met the woman, though I feel as if I know her intimately.
When news broke last Monday that Edwards’s breast cancer had spread to her liver, I was saddened but not surprised. After all, this was a woman with terminal cancer who had publicly acknowledged that she was dying and promised to live with grace the last of her allotted days. But following so soon thereafter the news of her death—-just one day--later, I felt deeply aggrieved, like she was cheated out of some valuable remaining days and I the closure with which to process her demise.
It’s sad when someone dies, especially someone so unobjectionably nice and good and gracious as Edwards. A cheated-upon wife, the mother of young children, a woman who has known more loss than most, Edwards was a sympathetic figure. I felt a connection to her, a connection facilitated by the very disease that killed her. We had that in common--breast cancer. But how silly that sounds. I never had breast cancer; she died from it. And yet--she is the reason I chose to do something so radical about my risk. We forget too often that breast cancer is a deadly disease, that it comes back once it’s “cured” and often with a vengeance. We forget this because the smiling Elizabeth, the healthy Elizabeth, the optimistic Elizabeth in the photographs that accompanied her obituary were not depictions of the woman she likely was at the end--ravaged by the disease, perhaps bald, perhaps wasting. The face we see was a woman living with terminal cancer, not the woman as she died. Not that we should see that--that’s private, of course. But it adds to the public sanitation of the disease. “But she looked so good! How could this have happened?” we ask. “I didn’t realize things were so bad. She seemed the picture of health and acceptance.”
When I cried over Edwards’s death, I cried about the insidiousness of cancer, its mercilessness, its ceaseless appetite. I cried for her young kids. I cried for the days she wouldn’t live to see, the people in her life that would have to find a way to go on without her. But I also cried because, in some ways, I felt guilty. That I had a chance that she did not. That I got a get-of-jail-free card and she didn’t. That I most likely won’t have to go through what she did.
Which leads me to another point. This time last year, with the countdown to surgery reaching single digits, I was still terrified of breast cancer--terrified that they’d open me and have to sew me up again, my breast too full of tumors and black goo and all that to make any difference. This time last year, I was actively afraid of breast cancer. My risk weighed on me. If Elizabeth Edwards had died on December 7, 2009, I would have had only one thought: that’s going to be me.
And yet, as I approach the one-year anniversary of my risk reducing surgery, I realize how precipitously my fear of breast cancer has also dropped. Not only did I greatly lessen my chance of getting breast cancer, I’ve all but eliminated the fear of it, too. And that’s incredible. I can read news of Edwards’s death and not be afraid. I can be sad, but I’m not afraid.