Family Matters

By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Elizabeth Edwards won me over when she announced that she looked like a bag lady.

It was a few weeks before the Iowa caucuses in 2004, and Edwards and I were on the same flight from Des Moines to Washington. Edwards offered that self-deprecating assessment when I admired the woolen shawl she had wrapped around her.

Bag lady was going too far, but, as she trudged through the ticket line, then submitted to the extra scrutiny inflicted on those who purchase one-way tickets, Edwards did have more the air of bedraggled staffer than cosseted, coiffed spouse. We talked about her husband's newly retooled stump speech, and juggling young kids (her littlest are a few years behind mine) and campaign travel.

In short, she seemed like the political spouse you'd most like to go out with for coffee, maybe ask to join your book group. How can you not like a woman who, taking her morning shower two weeks before the 2004 election, feels a plum-sized lump in her breast and decides to press on -- with a speed-shopping expedition to an outlet mall?

It is, I think, this very quality of normalcy that makes the story of Elizabeth Edwards's illness so compelling.

Every mother, working or not, deals with the question of how much -- how much privacy, how much independence, how much time -- to hoard for herself vs. how much to give her children.

Every wife, working or not, grapples with how to calibrate her needs and desires with those of her husband.

Yes, fathers and husbands balance and sacrifice too, though not quite as much. It is hard to imagine this story playing out the same way if the genders were reversed. If nothing else, voters wouldn't take kindly to a wife who didn't drop out to care for her sick husband.

And so, to watch Elizabeth Edwards decide how to proceed in the face of an implacable illness is to question, once again, your own choices in life. Would you have spent your time differently if you knew you were about to be run over by a bus? What if you could see the bus relentlessly bearing down on you but couldn't tell how many blocks away it was?

The Edwardses, of course, are a special case, in ways that may make their ordeal both harder and easier. They have already suffered the ultimate loss: the death of a child. They do not have to grapple with the mundane concerns of how to pay the mortgage or what to do about health insurance.

But they arrive at this moment with shared belief in a cause -- his election -- that tugs at their attention in a way that may be unfathomable to those who have not felt politics' seductive pull.

I am, as I think many mesmerized by the Edwards story are, conflicted about Elizabeth's choice -- and I do believe this is firmly, fully her choice. I respect her drive "to do next week all the things I did last week" -- not to let her life be defined by cancer.

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