Friday, December 31, 2010

Saving Graces: A testament to a mother's grief and a woman's strength

Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and StrangersMy rating: 3 out of 5 stars

When Elizabeth Edwards died in November and I heard an excerpt from this book about her growing-up life in Japan, I knew I had to read it.

Edwards begins her first memoir with the discovery of the fateful lump, which was breast cancer, a few days before the 2004 general election. Then she goes back to the beginning and describes her life growing up as a Navy brat, moving around the world but often based in Japan. I enjoyed reading the description of her early life, growing up with her sister and brother in a close-knit military community (she acknowledges that not all military childhoods were as rosy as hers). Her parents taught her to become an extremely principled, compassionate woman who was deeply concerned about others.

She describes reading the famous essay in Ms. magazine, "A Housewife's Moment of Truth," in which Jane O'Reilly describes the "clicks" women have as they discover they are feminists. Edwards felt moved to action when she heard a boy in her university dormitory say about the killings at Kent State: "They probably deserved it." She said, "He would do nothing to protest, and if I did nothing, I would--for all of history--be just like him..." That was the click that inspired her to get involved in politics and begin expressing her opinions, after so many years of having to stifle herself because of being a child of a Navy officer.

The two best chunks of the book concerned her son's death at the tender age of 16 and how she grieved this awful loss, and her experiencing the first of what would come to be many of her cancer treatments. A reviewer (who also had lost a child) criticized Edwards because she had the time and the money to fully grieve Wade--by setting up foundations (and a computer center at his high school), traveling to accept awards on his behalf, visiting the cemetery constantly, and spending countless hours on the internet grief support boards. This kind of criticism is heartless. Yes, Edwards did have the luxury to pour herself into her grief, but who could fault a mother for doing so?

She talks about the difficulty of going to a grocery store and passing Wade's favorite foods, and I recall a friend whose husband had died way too early...she told me that going to the grocery store without her husband was one of the most painful experiences she had to bear. Wade's death deeply damaged her life and soul, and the hope of being with Wade again was one small glimmer for her to look forward to in dying.

She quoted Edna St. Vincent Millay on how she felt about Wade's death: "I am not resigned to shutting away of loving hearts in cold ground...Down, down, down to the darkness of the grave, gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind; quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave. I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned."

She faced breast cancer with courage, honesty, and conviction. She received an overwhelming outpouring of support from not only her family and friends, but people across the country and the world. Most cancer patients, of course, do not have this level of support.

Edwards bared her soul in sharing about her grief and cancer and the solace she received from others. The only flaw to this book were the chapters about the political campaigns, much of which seemed like a recitation of (pointless-to-me) names and campaign events. I scanned over much of this and only read the parts that interested me, about the more familiar names or events in the campaign...or the stories about everyday people who touched her. Hence, the three stars.

My favorite story in the book was one of the quietest ones. When the plane of one of her father's squadron mates crashed into the Sea of Japan, Edwards' family immediately took in his widow and 2-year-old daughter, April. April was young enough to not fully understand the pain in her own home and relished in the excitement and energy of Edwards' family. One night April requested to say grace.
"The table got quiet. Everyone folded their hands. April, with a resoluteness she would need in life, took over. She had never said grace before. It was quiet a bit too long, and my brother squirmed. Finally it came. One word.


April unfolded her hands and picked up her fork.

We all opened our eyes over our folded hands and looked to my mother for guidance. Mother gave the unmistakable signal that we were to treat April's version as a real blessing. Because, of course, it was."
Elizabeth Edwards lived her life with grace up to the end.

Reading this book made me ever more disgusted with the betrayal of John Edwards, whom she loved and cherished. They had been through so much together, with the death of a child, IVF and late parenthood, the breast cancer, and all the campaigning. And watching the interviews with Rielle Hunter, it just baffles the mind how he could give up Elizabeth for someone so narcissistic and shallow. I hope he feels regret for the way he treated her all his life. That will be his legacy, not exactly what he hoped for.

This is one of the last interviews I could find. She spoke about the necessity of living her own life and not just being thought of as "the cuckolded wife." The saddest thing is that she didn't have very much time to live that life.

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