Is there a person in American who is not thinking about, tossing around or parsing through the appearance and subsequent statements of John and Elizabeth Edwards?
I doubt it.
Despite the hype and buildup to their special announcement about the return of Elizabeth’s cancer and John’s decision to stay in the race for president, despite all the press releases and all the speculation, I don’t think any of us were quite prepared for the candor and courage we saw at that noon press conference from the early spring garden in Durham, N.C.
I know I went to bed thinking about the news and I woke up thinking about it and while I have stopped (mostly) reading about other people’s reactions, what they both said and how they plan to continue his campaign for president is still on my mind.
Because at the end of the day, we’re all terminal, though as a friend reminded me most of us just haven’t gotten the diagnosis yet.
For those of us unable to own up to our own impermanence - while we faithfully take our calcium citrate and glucosamine chondroitin, try to eat our greens and pay through the nose for organic fruits and vegetables - I venture to say we all probably know at least one or two people (more like five or six) who have got the heads-up and who are living, not dying, with their own diagnosis.
OK, the people we know are not running for president or stumping for someone running for president and maybe they don’t have two children under the age of 10, but in between preparing for their week of chemotherapy and falling asleep on the couch and feeling too ill to eat and waiting for reports and seeing specialists, they are renting movies, talking to their pet birds, shaking their head about the duplicitous, pathetic Alberto (“You’re doing a heck of a job, Brownie”) Gonzales, holding their breath as Tiger Woods makes a putt on the 18th hole, complaining about the rudeness of some sister-in-law or making jokes about their condition (“Oops, that’s my daughter on the other line; I better take this call so she doesn’t think I’m dead”).
Though not publicly or even through one of the multitudinous blogs, they are quietly getting on with their lives, trying to get in a few laughs, hoping their taste buds hold up, preparing to pinch themselves if they start to fall asleep at the Passover Seder and praying people won’t ask about their condition because it’s pretty hard to keep talking when someone on the other end of the phone keeps crying.
They’re also making decisions about which people to hang out with and which to cut from the list.
Denial? Maybe, maybe not. Living? Definitely.
The Edwards’ comparison to people managing their diabetes was apt. They could have - and maybe they did and I just didn’t hear it - just as well have mentioned those living with Parkinsons and HIV-AIDS, both, for the most part, manageable and chronic diseases.
They will receive criticism, for sure. They will be called selfish, self-centered and self-important. They will be labeled opportunistic.
But the people I like to hear from are those who also carry a chronic disease, someone like Andrew Sullivan, a writer I keep with through his blog. Sullivan, who has HIV-AIDS, cheered on the decision of John and Elizabeth Edwards. Sullivan mentioned the book that most helped him when he was diagnosed, Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness.
Aside from public service and despite the fact that the Edwards are obviously people of means and will receive topnotch care, this admission of truth of Elizabeth’s condition and the subsequent discussion about what to do next might be the closest we’ve ever gotten to any real discussion about real problems and real people.
Ironically, since Edwards is one of the few candidates to take up the issue of poverty, this might be the only discussion we get in the next two years of promises and presidential debates about health care or of our country’s two-tiered society.
If there’s such a such as dying with style there’s also such a thing as living with style. Sorry Ann Coulter. The Edwards family, I would venture, is living with style.