May 5, 2007. Comments by those who know and love Andrea (see below), compel me to further explicate: when I wrote this post, I did not intend it to be about Andrea, but was writing a current-events commentary on Elizabeth Edwards and the presidential campaign. Not surprisingly, thinking about her cancer brought up some of my feelings about Andrea. But I did not intend this to be a tribute to her–and it isn’t. If I was going to write a tribute–and I might do so at some point–it would be a lot more personal. It would be about how we met, and how she reached out to me, and my feelings about her and our friendship as it evolved. I’m glad people like this and seem to be moved by it. Stay tuned for more.–MS
Now that everyone else on the planet has weighed in with opinions about Elizabeth Edwards’ decision to go on with her husband’s campaign, I might as well do the same. Seeing everything in black and white with no shades of gray between, the public declared Edwards either in utter denial (bad) or a brave soul (good). Both of these simplifications hold an element of truth, surrounded by a million gradations of feeling and meaning. Someone once said the ability to see and live with contradictions is the mark of a sophisticated intelligence.
Initial responses, however, were far from sophisticated or intelligent, but of the judgmental variety: they’re being selfish, robbing their children of time and love by campaigning; they’re in denial; they’re hideously ambitious, using cancer to get votes. Thankfully the conversation soon moved on—and became increasingly personal. By standing in front of the cameras and telling the world “I have incurable cancer and this is how I’m going to handle it,” Edwards did in 15 minutes what Betty Ford did for alcoholism and what Rock Hudson did for AIDS: she sparked honest and emotional dialog in kitchens and offices, backyards and factories. Suddenly it’s okay to say the word cancer in the same breath as “I”. If she does nothing more with her time than this, Elizabeth Edwards will have done a great service for the people of this country.
A few years ago I might have been one of the judgmental: I probably would’ve thought the Edwardses’ attitude almost infantile in its relentlessly upbeat tone, seeing it as denial. But then, a few years ago one of my closest friends had not yet been diagnosed with lung cancer, and I had not yet watched her undergo chemotherapy, radiation, pills and the agony of facing untimely death.
When Andrea told me she had lung cancer it came as a shocking blow. Looking back, I wonder why I should have been so shocked, statistically speaking. Given the statistics of cancer, it was bound to hit someone close to me sooner or later. But the human heart doesn’t know from statistics, and after she told me, I walked around shocked and dazed for weeks. To me, cancer was a death sentence, particularly lung cancer. As recently as 1999 two people I knew, a married couple, died of lung cancer within a few years of one another. They’d each lived only a few months after diagnosis.
Additionally, I’d never realized it, but from popular culture I’d subconsciously formed a picture of two possible scenarios in response to a cancer diagnosis. In the first, you cried, felt sorry for yourself, and retired from living; loathe to endure the barbarisms of treatment, you simply waited for death. In the second scenario, you had an epiphany in which you suddenly realized you’d been wasting your life, and, vowing to cram as much as possible into your remaining days, did something dramatic like set sail around the world. But with Andrea, neither of these occurred.
Andrea already knew the value of life, and had lived hers more or less the way she wanted to—she didn’t need cancer to show her The Way. And she certainly wasn’t about to give up. Early on she made a decision: if she was going to suffer the miseries and indignities of chemotherapy and all the rest, she was going to use the time it gave her. She wasn’t going to give up a minute before she had to: the point of all this medical treatment, she told me, was so she could go on living while she was alive. It wasn’t a big dramatic thing: it was just life. Life with cancer.
And so I watched and I learned, as Andrea’s life went on much as it always had. Having lived in the same geographical area, more or less, where she grew up, and, having kept in touch with almost everyone she’d ever formed a relationship with, she has a huge circle of friends. Thus, living Andrea’s life as she always had meant being surrounded by people—family and friends, old and new. It meant facing the new reality with her husband, riding the ups and downs of marital communication. It meant regularly checking in on her senile ninety-five year old widowed uncle. It meant weekend or week-long visits from faraway friends; weekends with friends in Maine, Cape Cod, or the Hamptons; weddings in Virginia and Jamaica, bar mitzvahs in Connecticut, even cross-country visits to family in California. It meant lending a necklace to a friend for a wedding; hanging out with her just-engaged daughter and counseling her on wedding plans; taking her grandkids to see The Lion King. As a solitary hermetic type, I’ve always been fascinated by Andrea’s life. None of it changed—in fact, she gathered even more people into her life: the nurses at the cancer treatment center, other patients, alternative healers, caregivers. With cancer, it helps to have a big family, including a husband who’s willing to go through hell and high water with you. It also helps that she has the financial resources for things like massages and acupuncture; people without those resources don’t get the kinds of perks that can give you an attitude boost. Still, none of that matters in the dark of night when you lie awake worrying about the new ache behind your eye. Most people would probably prefer to worry about the bills.
I used to think that continuing life uninterrupted in the face of potentially fatal illness was denial. Andrea has shown me otherwise. She might be living the way she always has—but that doesn’t mean she isn’t terrified, or sad about a truncated future. She has sleepless nights, crying jags, and scary thoughts. The two of us haven’t tiptoed around death, either: sometimes we’ve alluded to it in the course of conversation; other times we’ve had open discussions. We’ve both cried. Denial this is not.
It’s been almost three years now and Andrea’s still alive. Since her diagnosis I’ve been to see her several times (we live 3000 miles apart). On my first visit, I was happily stunned to find her looking and acting pretty much the same: healthy. I went to some of her chemo treatments with her, and we spent the rest of the time doing what we’ve always done together: eating pizza, talking, driving around gawking at Westchester mansions, going to movies, talking, having our nails done, eating, talking. One day we even made two pilgrimages, one to the oldest U.S. pet cemetery, in Hartsdale, NY, and another to Babe Ruth’s grave. Come to think of it, it’s odd that we decided to go hiking among the tombstones.
On my last visit things didn’t go quite as smoothly. Andrea’s hair had fallen out, and she was so exhausted she slept most of the day. Still, when she was awake, we went out, we talked, we ate. We even laughed.
We all tell her she’s incredibly brave—and she is. But logically speaking, what choice does she have? She could have given up, or she could have fought. She chose to fight. Neither course is easy.
Elizabeth Edwards will fight too. Like Andrea, she has a lot of resources, and a lot of people to provide the care and support she’s going to need. I’m sure that’s part of the reason she, and her husband, feel able to go on with the campaign. But Edwards has something extra added to the mix: she’ll be living out her choices in the public eye. She’ll read op-eds that call her foolish for pushing herself, or selfish for leaving her children to go campaigning. Others will call her brave, a shining example, and get all saccharine, turning her into a saint. We’d do better to just shut up, to simply watch and learn. Maybe then, when cancer hits closer to home, we’ll be able to deal with it as gracefully as Andrea.