The XX Factor

A Life Interrupted – and Celebrated

I felt bad for Elizabeth Edwards when she caught a lot of flak for appearing by her husband’s side while he ran for president even though she secretly knew about his extramarital affair. And I feel bad for her after reading various obituaries that made the affair and the breakup of their marriage seem like defining points of her very existence, no matter everything else that came before. Now to hear that the crazy moralists, or more accurately moral-less , from Westboro Baptist Church – the same folks who picket outside the funerals of service men and women killed in Afghanistan and Iraq – will be picketing Edwards’ funeral this Saturday, makes me sad for her and her family.

It’s bad enough that she endured public judgment while she was alive for what would ordinarily be a private matter for most of us; she shouldn’t be subjected to the judgment of heartless crazies in death. Thankfully some 800 people have volunteered to block out the protesters by forming a human “Wall of Peace” outside the church where the funeral will be held. If the Westboro Baptist protesters can’t find room in their ice-cold hearts to feel a shred of sympathy and respect for Edwards’ family, particularly her children, maybe those who oppose their tactics should picket outside Westboro Baptist Church every Sunday.

I can’t help but wonder what Elizabeth Edwards thought about as death approached and she assessed her life. Clearly her life was filled with joy and meaning, and experiences that most of us can only dream about. She had access to influential and important people, a public stage to advocate for causes that were important to her, and for a time, an adoring and sympathetic fan-base. Her books, despite the debates over whether they were intellectually honest or simply self-serving, were thoughtfully written and further humanized her – even if sometimes negatively. Still, I wonder if, in the end, all these benefits were overshadowed by the scandal, the humiliating public betrayal by her husband of 33 years, a stepdaughter born to his (mistress? on-and-off girlfriend? wife-to- be?). Did the regrets overwhelm the triumphs? Did she wish she had invested more in herself and her own dreams and ambitions and not put so much of her intellectual energies into those of her husband?

It’s a rule of journalism that obituaries of famous people not ignore the most newsworthy and controversial aspect of their lives. But too many articles about Edwards’ death ignored the full arc of her life. Many didn’t mention her obvious love for her children. They didn’t discuss what it was like for her to be an older, second-time-around mom and the unconventional thinking that prompted her decision. (She has said that the house felt empty and sad after the death of her son Wade and with the knowledge that her daughter Cate would be going off to college soon.) I would have liked to hear from friends and family about the inner fortitude that helped her write two books while battling cancer. Was she the friend who always remembered birthdays? The sibling who shopped for days to find just the right Christmas gift? The kind of daughter who called her parents from the campaign trail just to say hi? We don’t know. Yet every article told us over and over the sordid details of what we already knew. ( This headline was particularly grating : “Elizabeth Edwards Dies Amid Marital Misery”)

It’s hard not to feel angry at John Edwards right now, not to make him a proxy for all philandering, egomaniacal husbands who trade in loyal wives who have aged and put on a few pounds for younger, sexier, more adoring women. To do so while your wife is fighting for her life seems unforgivable. If anything, the crazy picketers should be protesting outside his house.  I’m joking, of course. Despite his reprehensible behavior, he deserves the same respect as the rest of her grieving family. Who are we to judge him, anyway? After all, he was reportedly by Elizabeth’s side during these last days. Maybe she forgave him. Maybe she loved him until the very end. In any case, now is not the time to beat up on him. He’ll have plenty of time to beat up on himself. His punishment will be living with what he did.

Hopefully over time she’ll be remembered for more than just being married to him.

Photograph of Elizabeth Edwards by Frederick Brown for Getty Images.