It’s common to laud the “courage” of people afflicted with fatal illnesses, mainly because most of us simply don’t know what else to say. It seems patronizing to bestow pity on someone faced with an untenable situation, and yet unkind to pretend someone is not facing death. So we present the terrible condition as a good-vs.-evil battle between the indefensible illness and the defiant person at war with it, all the while denying the sad truth--that the disease almost always wins.
But in the case of Elizabeth Edwards, the word “courage” is entirely appropriate and well-earned. How else to describe a woman who endured so much personal tragedy and pain, and dealt with all of it even as she faced down the cancer that would take her life this week? Ms. Edwards had already experienced the worst a parent can endure, the untimely death of a child. She went on to bear two more beautiful children--a risk at her age then--and was a supportive spouse when her husband, former Sen. John Edwards, ran for vice president and then president. Soon after Sen. John Kerry and Senator Edwards lost this bid for the White House, Ms. Edwards learned she had breast cancer. With dignity and determination, she underwent treatment, but several years later, she learned the cancer had spread to her bones. Stunningly, Ms. Edwards stood by her husband as he continued his 2008 run for president. He paid her back by publicly humiliating her with an affair which produced a child--an affair and a child he initially denied.
Yet Ms. Edwards didn’t walk around like a victim, even though she had been unfairly victimized by both cancer and her husband. She kept up the cancer treatments (ending just the day before she died, after doctors told her there was nothing else the treatments could do), separated from her husband, and kept up a public campaign for better health care for all Americans. Ill with her own cancer, she showed up for the funeral of Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, who shared Ms. Edwards’ commitment to universal healthcare. She was not, according to the book Game Change, by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann, the "Saint Elizabeth" many saw her to be; she reportedly had a temper felt by both her husband and campaign staffers. That doesn’t make her less sympathetic; it makes her human. A very courageous human. A very strong woman. And a true inspiration.