Elizabeth Edwards as I Knew Her

12/13/10

Last night I wrapped dozens of family Christmas gifts, an activity I look upon more like a chore, than a joyful act. But, Elizabeth didn’t and she loved doing that. I felt guilty that it was me and not her. This morning, I made two lunches for school, packed them up, wiped the counters down, emptied the sink of dirty dishes, and started the dishwasher. But, Elizabeth didn’t get to do that, yet I imagine she took great pleasure in making lunches for her two dear children.. At 7 pm, we went to the candlelight memorial service for our son who died many years ago, where we lit a candle, spoke his name and placed the loving light in front his adorable photo. Elizabeth didn’t get to do this for her beloved son, Wade, though a candle WAS lit in her memory and in his. Elizabeth wasn’t there because instead, she had been place in the very cold, wet ground, albeit next to her beloved son, Wade who died 15 years before she did. She is gone.

Elizabeth loved Christmas so much that she accumulated enough ornaments and decorations they required an entire room for storage. The first Christmas after Wade’s death, she felt unable to bring them down from her attic and so friends actually rallied and not only brought them down, but decorated the house for her.

Survivor’s guilt? Perhaps, but it is not like I was all that close to Elizabeth Anania Edwards, it was just that we had so many parallels in our lives, that I came to feel connected to. I found her intriguing, charismatic and completely amazing in her unstoppable drive. I could see her faults as well and I did not delude myself on those. And, I felt angry at her more than once, for abandoning our friendship at one point, jealous for her getting pregnant months before I did, envious for having more money than I could ever conceive of, judgmental of her having a nanny to care for her kids and for not breastfeeding them as well. I admit the anger and envy but I have had only a few icons in my life and indeed, she was one of them. The more I learn about her, the more I realize how true that was.

I remember the first couple of times I met Elizabeth. My 27 month old son, Gregory died in 1995. My husband, Shep and I were still deep in the throes of devastating grief and would be for years to come. I was a faithful member of the club no one ever wants to join but the one from which there there is no way out. We sought the understanding and common language that can only be found at Compassionate Friends meetings. Oddly, the faithful leader of the group, Gwynn Winstead had been leading the meeting for over 20 years when we began coming. Gwynn had two surviving daughters the same age as Elizabeth’s son, Wade and daughter, Cate. It is likely that Elizabeth and her family had tried to be empathetic and compassionate to Gwynn in her years of grieving the loss of her infant son. But, as is the case with most parents, they cannot really imagine the agony, nor, should they. No one would enter into parenting if they knew the risk of this endless, searing pain that ensues if the child should die. No one. So, I often imagined the irony when all those years later, Elizabeth’s only son, Wade died in a tragic car wreck and she found herself attending the very meetings that her best friend had been running for years. Elizabeth finally understood, most unfortunately.

I remember a lot about Elizabeth at those meetings. I believe that her husband, John, (who was then just a locally well known, successful trial lawyer) came to only two meetings. He was struggling he reported, to grieve and work at the same time. And, he confessed that he had to “put his grief into a box” during the day so he could perform in the court room. And, perform he did, winning enough malpractice cases to earn him the name “ambulance chaser” as well as several million dollars. I remember hearing that he was the “seventh top lawyer in the United States.” He and his son, Wade had climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest peak in Africa together and were very close. He wore their Kilimanjaro pin on his lapel for evermore. John was clearly devastated as well. I would run into him at the Oakwood Cemetery where he would drive up in his black BMW and sit at the perfectly manicured grave, head in hands, ruminating. I sat and talked with him on one of those occasions and he was clearly distraught over this loss of his only son. At one point, there was reference in the News and Observer to him “using” his son’s death in the courtroom to gain advantage in a case. I found that abhorrent and wrote a letter to the editor defending John’s honest grief and good character, correcting the “facts.” It was published and I believe that Elizabeth thanked me at the time.

Elizabeth’s entire life was taken over by her profound grief. Almost immediately after Wade’s death, she and John erected an undulating sculpture on his high school grounds with hand prints of every student as well as a memorial bench. Even grander, the Wade Edwards Learning Lab, also known as “The WELL” opened across the street offering computer use and tutoring to students who had no access to such. Computers were of great interest to Elizabeth so this was right up her alley. Both were amazing accomplishments in a rather short, chaotic, period of time. I remember thinking that perhaps the parents of another boy, Jackson who had drowned in Hurricane Fran floods would feel less than, since Wade’s memorials were so dominant. Elizabeth spoke of computers and websites and chat rooms incessantly and of how helpful they were to her in her grief. This was 1996, and most of us had no clue or interest in what she was talking about. She was online constantly and this seemed to help her. At the time, I was barely learning how to use email, but she and I began corresponding regularly, particularly sending our grief poetry back and forth. At some point, she discovered Gordon Livingston who had authored, “Only Spring” about his adorable young, blond son who had died from leukemia. Gordon was a published writer and so he began critiquing Elizabeth’s and my writing. Sometimes, our words would bleed in the emails with the amount of exquisite pain and anguish that Elizabeth and I would send back and forth to each other.

Once when I was driving home, I came across flashing lights, ambulances, and police cars in the dark of night. When I got closer, I could see that a jeep just like Wade’s had flipped over and the passengers were being excavated. I became hysterical at the sight of this and raced home to call Elizabeth. When John answered, I asked to speak to Elizabeth and when I sobbed out the words of compassion I felt for this horrible way her son had died and a description of what I had witnessed, I felt I got an unusual response. “I am so sorry you had to see something like that, Ann.” It was odd in that I thought to myself, “No, I am so, so, so sorry that this is what it looked like when your son was killed.” I know though, that they were not witness to that sight. Wade had been driving home from the beach that fateful night. John arrived at the emergency room in eastern North Carolina to identify Wade’s already dead body.

Elizabeth spent every single day at Wade’s grave in historical Oakwood Cemetery. She planted boatloads of flowers, brought cut roses, little statues, butterflies, notes, plaques. A granite bench was placed engraved with quotes of an award winning essay Wade had written. But, the big event to come, was when the Edwards commissioned an Italian sculptor to create a statue for Wade’s grave. It was to be made of pure white Italian marble and would rise over 12 feet high dominating the entire cemetery. It was such a large piece to be worked on, that they had to rent a huge space at a college warehouse where the sculptor could work.

My father died on March 17, 1997, less than a year after Wade. A new veteran’s section of Oakwood Cemetery, was created just a few feet from Wade’s grave. When we arrived at the cemetery for burial service, Elizabeth was at Wade’s grave as usual. I clearly remember this image of her, dressed in black, slowly walking down the small hill and sitting with us for my father’s burial while “Taps” was trumpeted out in the foreground. Because the graves are so close, I have yet to visit my father’s grave without also going to see Wade’s. Some months later, Wade’s sculpture was finally ready but it was so massive a work and so heavy that it could not actually be placed on top of Wade’s buried vault. Instead, it had to be moved, concrete poured into the ground and then this massive work of art was installed. It is in fact, an awesome sight, with an angel holding a replica of Wade’s sweet face. The angel’s gown, her tendrils of hair and her features are indeed a fine, fine artistic creation and yes, it does dominate the entire historical cemetery. It has always frustrated me though, that the face is so high up that I cannot really see it. I often wish I had a ladder! I know that of course, the face is a perfect replica.

In the two years that Elizabeth spent seated on Wade’s bench she managed to read aloud every single reading assignment from his high school, every classic book she could, and the bible from cover to cover. It is also reported that she took to cleaning and caring for some of the other really old graves of babies and children whose parents had since died and could no longer do so. This was in fact, classic Elizabeth. She cared. Once Elizabeth also shared with me, the idea of actually laying down on the grave to feel the warmth, the beat and heat of the earth, the scent of life in that earth and hopefully, a closer connection to the children we missed endlessly. She cried when she shared that she did this on a regular basis and we all listened intently at that Compassionate Friends meeting. The very next week, I tried this and found it to be therapeutic. In fact, when a local newspaper ran an article on the memorial garden we created for our son, there was a picture of me doing just that.

I had a certain image of Elizabeth that was not really accurate. When I first met her at Compassionate Friends, she had long dark hair, and was wearing a flowing peasant skirt. It was easy to recognize the fact that she was well educated, quick thinking, and resourceful, yet she lived in this hell of grief that stole her career, her soul, and her sense of life. I approached her and said, “You look like the kind of woman who always has the kettle on for a good cup of tea. I would love to come by and have one with you.” “Oh, she said, “I am a Diet Coke girl!” I was so disappointed. Diet Coke? Yuck. I hear she was a constant sipper as was John, of just that.

After Wade’s death Elizabeth and John hosted weekly suppers for all of Wade’s school chums. The friends would all come over and congregate and eat and reminisce about him and this made the Edwards feel like they were keeping a connection to the surviving friends who Wade was closest too. Elizabeth bragged about these suppers, her close relationship with the boys and how much joy and laughter there was on those evenings. I could never relate to these events for some reason, perhaps because the child I grieved for was only two years old.

So, over those couple of years, we both showed up for meetings religiously every two weeks. The meetings sustained us in our grief and somehow kept us going. It seemed like such a conundrum of sorts, when I would sit at a meeting listening to the worst of the worst stories, sharing endless tears, sighs, and gasps, and wonder HOW can this be helping. I would scribble on the agenda over and over what became my mantra “the depths of human agony.” To this day, I really don’t know how attending works, but indeed it does. It is one of those mysteries like an incarnation, that I simply accepted. I remember one night when Elizabeth spoke of how all her hair was falling out and she reached back to her long dark tresses, and showed us how a handful of it came out in her hands. I too, confessed that when I looked in the mirror, I had no idea of who I saw in my reflection since my skin and hair had turned gray, my eyes were dull and swollen and my face was unrecognizable. Weeks later, Judy Allen a local therapist and bereaved mother herself, came to speak about the “physical characteristics of grief.” All the physical symptoms were typical as it turned out. It was very enlightening and affirming and Judy went on to become my therapist for the next 10 years!

One day early in 1997, Elizabeth and I agreed to meet at Barnes and Nobles for a cup of coffee. I had no idea that this was to be a most life changing meeting. I remember running into Duff,a good friend of ours, that day and I wonder if he knew how profound a meeting I was having. Elizabeth and I did some crying and talking. Elizabeth asked me what I was doing to cope these days. She often shared with me her intense close relationship with her daughter, Cate and her late son, Wade and I was shocked sometimes at how open their conversations were. She told me how she had discussed the way to properly kiss a girl with Wade. Cate had now taken to sleeping on a chair in their bedroom, since she remained terrified since her brother’s death. She was no longer planning on going to boarding school, but instead would attend the local public high school, Broughton, that her brother had attended. Cate and her mom had been in the Northeast looking at possible boarding schools for her on the night that Wade was killed.

Finally, I confessed to Elizabeth that I had been seeing my local gynecologist, whom she knew, trying to figure out why I was not getting pregnant. I had decided that in order for some life to go on in my family, this would be the only possible solution. I had this vision of bringing light into our lives to fight off the deep darkness we lived in. I would play the recording of “You’ll be Blessed” by Elton John over and over while I sang the words as loud as I could, begging God to give me another chance at mothering a baby. I thought about having a baby almost constantly when I wasn’t thinking of how desperately I was missing Gregory and when I wasn’t trying to keep my surviving children surviving. “Oh, dear” Elizabeth said, “I am trying to get pregnant too, but you must get to an infertility clinic immediately. Do not go back to your gynecologist, but instead, run don’t walk to my Dr. Meyer, reproductive endocrinologist, at UNC Hospital. He will help you and I will get you an appointment at once. You are too old now to get pregnant on your own.” I found myself in Dr. Meyer’s office the very next week. He was nice enough and did some tests, but it was clear to us that progress would be slow because he was very busy. Anytime, there were any ultrasounds of my uterus, I would weep uncontrollably, knowing that was where Gregory had lived and been born from. I was still such a mess. We headed to Duke, to see Dr. Walmer to begin our treatments instead. I did not know where on earth we would come up with the $10,000 fee. Shortly after our first visit, I was bequesthed $10,000 by my late Aunt Ann, my namesake and so we knew where that would go. The cycles at Duke were invasive and frustrating, but not debilitating.

When Elizabeth and I would talk about her efforts at getting pregnant I can clearly remember being very scared of all the drugs she was using to hyperstimulate ovulation, and conception. I said, “Elizabeth, aren’t you so afraid of what you are doing to your body, your hormonal system, your entire well being? I am so hesitant to take these drugs and you have been using them for a really long time now.” “Oh, she said, I am from very strong stock. No one in my family has ever had cancer. I am not afraid at all. They will not affect me.” I remained afraid and cautious and I believe that if I hadn’t seen results in a short time, I would not have been able to continue taking these dangerous drugs in good conscience. At the time, we were both ardent members of an online group called, “Fortility” for those over 40 trying to conceive. Their recommendations were always for all drugs at all costs for the sake of the coveted prize– a baby.

Not long after our first Duke visit, we went to a meeting and there was Elizabeth, clearly pregnant and glowing. To be honest, I was filled with anger. John had declared his candidacy for North Carolina senate shortly before this and oddly, I felt a sudden chill in our friendship. It was like I was dropped out of their radar either because she no longer had time for me, or because she would now socialize in different circles, or because I knew too much about her and John that she wanted kept confidential, or any number or other possibilities. But, I really did feel a mysterious estrangement from her that made me feel hurt and rejected. So, seeing her pregnant did not exactly make things any sweeter. I was terribly jealous at once. Our Compassionate Friends meeting was held in a different room that night and I remember she sat on a couch with an already swollen belly. I left to go to the bathroom and cry several times throughout the meeting, feeling hopeless, abandoned and more than green with envy.

Elizabeth did not come to many more Compassionate Friends meetings after that. I missed her and I very much missed our email communications to her Wake4 address. The county we live in is “Wake” and the four was the size of her family before they lost Wade. On December 18, 1997, I got the results of my in vitro fertilization procedure at Duke. The kind nurse involved in the procedure sent me an email with pink and blue letters that spelled out “CONGRATULATIONS.” I was ecstatic and hopeful and relieved and anxious all at once and when I saw via ultrasound that I was to have twins, I was also filled with terror! I had desperately wanted another baby in my family, but could I possibly handle two? Or, would it take that much drama to yank us all out of the miserable sadness we still lived in?

Well, John won the senate seat and he and family moved to Georgetown in DC. Elizabeth had a little daughter now, named Emma Claire and the Christmas photo they sent to us that year was shocking. Elizabeth had a whole new glamorous image and looked fit and trim, Emma Claire with bow in hair was the quintessential, blond Southern little girl, Cate looked grown up and John, well what really can be said about how John looks? He simply always looks, perfect.

The daily cemetery visits came to an end when Emma Claire was born and especially when they left Raleigh for DC. The Edwards family seemed to be thriving in the limelight. As for us Smiths, we had two more boys! Twin boys born in August 1998, raised the total to 6 boys born into this family and yes, the light returned, the spirits soared and the brothers reconnected to their adorable new baby brothers. They would never replace Gregory but indeed they did bring life back to us in the black face of death. I became convinced that at 47, I was indeed the oldest mother in Raleigh, once Elizabeth left town. I navigated my new double wide, twin stroller as best as I could. If I got to the supermarket, I felt a huge accomplishment though I could only buy the small amount that fit into the stroller basket. The two carseat procedure was totally intimidating. I was breastfeeding two babies round the clock which dominated my life and I spent most hours sitting and wondering how to get through the next few hours! I often imagined Elizabeth entertaining the rich and famous, having a nanny to care for her baby as needed, and living a life I would probably have loved.

Once when Shep went on a business trip to DC, we went along with him. I strolled up and down DC streets with the twin stroller I had now mastered and had called Elizabeth for a play date in a DC park so that our little ones could meet. I cannot remember the exact sequence of events, but I think we had to leave early and I canceled our date. To this day, I sure wish I hadn’t. Our children have still never met. As is well known, Elizabeth went on to have another child – lots more drugs, lots more procedures and a lot older, I cannot imagine how she trudged through this again, at now, 50 years old! I believed at the time, that she was driven to have another son for John, though she claimed to simply not want Emma Claire to feel like the replacement child. Their son’s name is Jack with middle name, Atticus, which I assume is from “To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Always, John and Elizabeth seemed like a couple, deeply in love forever. As history showed, they went on to campaign for vice president and for president. Part of me was so totally shocked at this, yet, part of me, was not all that surprised. Yet, I was in awe of the fact that these were real people who I knew and knew quite a bit about! To be honest, John never got my support at all. He seemed completely counterfeit to me and his rants about “two Americas” with his repitious stories of being “the son of a mill worker” never pulled a single heart string of mine. As time passed, I liked him less and less, yet Elizabeth remained intriguing to me. I couldn’t imagine how she parented while campaigning but I had to assume she had that worked out. She was always so completely focused and she always held my interest, curiosity and admiration.

While doing all that, she managed to crank out her first book, Saving Graces. I couldn’t wait to get my hands on it and especially to read the parts about Compassionate Friends and the fellow travelers I knew well. I listened to every interview she did and teared up when she described collapsing in the cereal aisle when she saw Wade’s favorite cereal and realized she no longer had a reason to buy it. I knew that collapsing feeling. It happened to me once in a parking lot on a 100degree day when I glanced into a parked car and saw a carseat. I then, literally walked from car to car searching for Gregory, believing I would find him sweltering in the back seat of one of the parked cars. Then, I sat on that 100 degree tar sobbing for several minutes. Same thing.

By now, John had lost his vice-presidential bid with John Kerry and would not be staying in DC any longer, as there was no reason. I know he was devastated and not that it matters at all, but I was relieved! On the day that they lost the election, Elizabeth also found a large lump in her breast. Her best friend and assistant Hargrave, traveled with her at all times and confirmed that this lump needed to be evaluated at once. It was in fact, cancer and in life, timing is everything, so I can only imagine the total devastation they must have all felt at this time. I never could figure out whether Elizabeth proceeded to have a mastectomy or lumpectomy or not, but I suppose it does not matter now. She began aggressive treatment at UNC Hospital and seemed to have complete faith in her doctors, in chemotherapy and in radiation.

Recovering from breast cancer and suffering from Lymphedema, she proceeded in true Elizabeth style, to go on a whirlwind book tour. One of her first stops was to her favorite local book store in Raleigh, “Quail Ridge Books.” My friend Jane and I got there good and early to get a seat and waited excitedly. In walked Elizabeth, looking quite beautiful in light blue with pearls and oh, those blue, blue eyes! Following her was John, looking somewhat sheepish, but more, it was this attitude of “Well, this is Elizabeth’s show now.” I didn’t believe it for a moment, but he sat there on a chair behind her, well behaved. In retrospect, God only knows what was going on in his mind. There was a lot going on in his life at that point, that none of us were yet privy to. At the very beginning of her reading and talk, she stopped, scanned the crowd and said aloud, “Oh, now there is one of the strongest women I know, who helped me tremendously through my grief. How are you Ann and ALL those boys?” I nodded in gratitude for the recognition and she continued on. I was mesmerized at the time and most honored to have been acknowledged.

So, as is well known, the years passed and the story darkened and became uglier. John became more cocky, more full of himself, more of an ass. Ofent, when I saw him, I thought back to this visit Shep and I had made to his office years before. We were involved in attempting to sue the negligent, corrupt politician at whose Long Island home, our son drowned. We had a New York lawyer, whom I never laid eyes on because we continued to live in North Carolina. I would speak with him on the phone but was never sure if he was really good or not. So, we went to see John, then still a lawyer with a fancy office on Glenwood Avenue in Raleigh. In his office were lots of beautiful photos of Elizabeth and their kids. I shared our case with him and asked what he thought of Alan Chorney, our NY lawyer. “Well, John replied, “He’s not me.” Great. Thanks.

So, watching the rest of this movie unfold has been most uncomfortable. Elizabeth’s cancer returned with a vengeance and now it was in her bones. Seeing her in her Carolina blue suit with John in the garden at UNC Chapel Hill that day has been replayed on the screen and in our minds hundreds of times. Wondering why on earth they would insist on continuing the campaign given her condition perplexed me then, but not nearly as much as it would months later when we learned the real truth. Seeing John and Elizabeth renew their marriage vows on the beach for their 30th anniversary, (the same length of time as I have been married), is also an indelible visual, but now one that you look at and wonder, “What the hell was he thinking?” And, what torture was this for their eldest daughter, Cate looking on with a quizzical expression on her face?

And then there was the construction of the over the top, egregious monster mansion with full size basketball court and all other possible glitz and glitter for their new residence. A mixed message (this is the guy for poverty relief?) that raised eyebrows and was featured on Oprah, this seemed like a poor move at the time, but John never seemed concerned about imagery right down to his $400 haircuts. This was pause for questioning with “Just what are these people really all about and just how enormous could their egos possibly be?” But, through it all, Elizabeth remained, “Every Woman” with her weight problems, worries over hairstyles, her intensive mothering and openness about her loss, her endless vigor and energy despite the rigors of cancer treatments, the adoration for her husband and family. She fought for healthcare and the things we really cared about and she became a mega-celebrity sought after by Larry King, by Oprah, Matt Lauer, and by all. She always looked good, despite poor health and exhaustion which I could never figure out. We all identified with her in one way or another. My best friend, Lucia, struck with breast cancer herself, followed Elizabeth’s every move.

And so, when the axe fell… when John was exposed to be the extreme slime ball, the ultimate in low blow betrayal, dishonest, cheating, and aggrandizing, sneaking off with his paramour, his lying struck us all deep in our throats. It was the lowest of low and we were glued to the reported facts or those we hoped to be untrue, with riveted attention. Where was Elizabeth I wondered? How would she survive this publicly viewed dirt while she remained so critically ill? Being interviewed on Oprah months later, was a bit uncomfortable as she hinted at forgiving this lying, cheating man we had all come to despise. But, when I emailed her a note saying how sorry I was and how much I cared, she responded with, “Oh Ann, it is good to hear from you. I am here, but I have pulled the covers over my head” and that really said it all, didn’t it?

We all sat through the agony of seeing “the other woman” strut her stuff during the interview where Oprah curled her lip in disgust repeatedly. There were long periods of time when we heard nothing about Elizabeth and during those times I always wondered how she was and what was going on. I got it into my head that I wanted to go visit her in Chapel Hill, but by then, I felt that it would be impossible for me to get through to the mansion and imagined there would be no way for me to pull it off, through the constant media deluge I pictured. Rather large of me to feel that I could possibly comfort Elizabeth, but I really did! Again, I so wish I had pursued that.

I had trouble understanding Elizabeth opening a furniture store in Chapel Hill when she did. I mean how do you do that in the midst of a terminal disease, while raising small children, while trying to hold your act together as you are all over the tabloids and your husband’s new baby with his lover are also strewn everywhere? A furniture store?? There was so much that I really didn’t understand about Elizabeth so I often chastised myself for being judgmental. However, every single Christmas at the Compassionate Friends candlelighting service, I made sure to tell Gwynn, how forever grateful I was to Elizabeth for helping me to have my two cherished children.

Elizabeth, the electronic guru sent us all one last Facebook message before taking to bed to die and in it, she thanked us all for our strength and our love and our caring and she commented on how she found resilience in that, which is of course, the name of her last book , “Resilience.” Religious fundamentalists weren’t happy that she did not mention “God” instead but I believe that Elizabeth found God in people to a large degree. And so, the crazy people protesting in the rain outside of her funeral service served as a reminder of the fact that perhaps we only find God in certain people; in those without hatred. Elizabeth had much love to give and she gave it freely. She also was the recipient of affection from the many who loved her.

The funeral was deeply moving and sad. The sight of Emma Claire and Jack walking down the aisle of the Methodist Church and then not knowing what to do as John’s ego stepped forth and he began back slapping and working the crowd, was heart breaking. Cate escorted them and tapped her father to remind him to act befitting. So many thoughts were rolling around in my mind. Were these two children conceived and brought into the world, at the expense of the health and life of their mother? We will never know, but I will always wonder. Will my fate be the same? Will John be the good father he seems to be and remain loyal to his children as he did not remain to his wife? Will Cate be thrust into a role of parent to them as well? How in the world does she look her dad in the eye? Forgiveness is a mysterious thing and in most cases, it is for the best of everyone, but this one would take one noble soul. Did Elizabeth living years longer than anticipated, completely foil John’s plans with his trollop? Could Shakespeare himself have written a more complex play? Did the young men who were Wade’s friends and carried Elizabeth’s casket down the aisle ever think this was how life would play out? Was Wade really waiting for his mama at the moment of her death in some heavenly place? How did she feel having John at her side, as she laid dying with wisps of hair left on her chemo ravaged head? She wanted him and only him at her side, it has been reported. I suppose on some level, love really never dies.

I felt somewhat shaky and odd on Christmas eve and even more so on Christmas morning, imagining Elizabeth’s three bereft children opening the gifts their mom had carefully chosen for them one last time. She loved Christmas so much more than I do, it seemed unfair for me to celebrate what she could, no longer.

It has been cold and raining and then snowing since Elizabeth died. It is hard I am sure for her children to think of her body in the ground. My visits to Oakwood cemetery will be different and more intense now too. I will try and neaten up the children’s graves around Elizabeth’s and Wade’s to make an effort at keeping up the caring. I can only hope to care as much as Elizabeth did, about everything.

Ann Conlon-Smith 12/2010

Addendum 1/10/11

I made apologies to you today, Elizabeth. I dropped the boys off at school and went to Oakwood Cemetery for a visit with my dad. Along the way, I stopped at your new grave. The always manicured, always flourishing plot looked disheveled. The rectangle of grass placed over you is seasonally appropriate in its dead brown color but depressing nonetheless. And worse, there were three wreaths. Two were evergreen ones that were faded and limp. The third was green shiny plastic with fake white roses and I knew that you would cringe at such a thing. It is now long past Christmas. I wanted to remove all three, but I was afraid that maybe your sister or your children had placed them and would be hurt if I took them away. So, instead, I left them all there and apologized profusely. Then, I started to cry and said, “Oh Elizabeth, I just know you hate this whole thing and I am so, so sorry.”

Addendum 2/16/11

Last Thursday I went to UNC Chapel Hill hospital for my annual mammogram. I thought of Elizabeth the whole time because I imagine that this is where her last big journey began. When she finally got around to her mammogram she had already found a significant lump in her breast. She was treated and followed by Dr. Carey at UNC Chapel Hill Women’s Hospital, in whom she seemed to have complete trust and faith her healer. Despite treatment, in the end, her cancer spread, metastasized and eventually stole her life. Although my Xray technician tried so hard to make small talk with me to help me feel more at ease, I was quiet and still, thinking of what Elizabeth must have felt. Now, I get to pray for my journey to continue to be different than hers.

And then, the oddest thing happened. I almost always go to A Southern Season to wander around when I am in Chapel Hill. It is a huge gourmet kitchen and food store that gives me a sense of well being and creativity when I am there. So, as usual, I headed there after my mammogram with Elizabeth still very much on my mind. I chose from dozens of available parking spaces, got out of my car and looked down at the seat in the car next to me. There were pictures of Emma Claire and Jack Edwards staring at me! It was the back of one of Elizabeth’s books! Completely blown away, I proceeded to Southern Season and wandered for hours. Synchronicity at its finest.

ADDENDUM March 2011

Last weekend, there was a warehouse sale of Red Window furniture store. This is the small Chapel Hill furniture store that Elizabeth opened only a few years ago when she was already so ill. I could not imagine in the midst of all the John nightmare, the raising of the kids and the business of dying, that she could do this. But, as in all things, Elizabeth remained determined. So, the store is small, yes, but the warehouse in Hillsborough, NC is monstrous. The sale was held and off we went. I felt that nervous stomach feeling as when one is on the way to a funeral and I felt it even more so, once in the warehouse. There was a slight sense of vulture in the arena, but everyone seemed duly respectful. After all, I knew that in fact, Elizabeth had handpicked each and every gorgeous item in this space. And gorgeous they were! Each piece had me losing my breath over its beauty. Elizabeth’s nanny for Emma Claire and Jack ran the sale. And so, in need of an even bigger round table for our bigger and bigger family and in search of the perfect, artsy, island for our newly renovated kitchen, I intend to buy these two pieces. The prices oddly are amazingly low and it turns out that Elizabeth simply did not mark up anything! She put everything out at her wholesale cost, wanting others to have beautiful things. Okay. Each morning then, I will see my table and my island and know that Elizabeth chose these and I believe on some level, she chose them for me and for my family.

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WHOLE FOODS OPENS IN NORTH RALEIGH

I am probably the only one who was crying at the grand and gala opening of the new mega- Whole Foods in Raleigh this morning. I attended the behind the scenes tour a few days ago and was in awe of all the things I did not know about LEED approved building, non-toxic materials, organics, ANDI food categories, which fish are okay to eat and buy and which are not, same for meats, that a healthy dinner for four can be purchased for $14.99 and more. The minute the sign went up a year ago, announcing the coming building and new store I felt a certain sense of victory and ownership of my favorite store. I remember driving by last February and shrieking, “YES!”

I moved to Raleigh, North Carolina from Southampton, New York in 1993 with four young sons including a six month old. We moved into an apartment, not being sure just what part of town we would really want to own a house in. That was probably a good idea, because in fact the area we lived in, turned out to not be best. My oldest son was a sixth grader at the time so he began attending a popular middle school in August (this in itself was an adjustment – what no waiting till after Labor Day?). School was a total disaster for my son, Nicholas in that he hated this school, was terrified of everything, had a shop teacher who referred to his wood project as “a piece of crap,” and spent each morning crying his heart out begging me not to send him to school. I literally had no idea of what to do. Coming from New York, home schooling was literally unheard of. It just wasn’t something regularly done in “The Hamptons.”

At a tennis lesson one day, I overheard a group of women discussing their home schooling curriculums which revolved around a Christian theme. Of course, I had soon found out that the meaning of “being a Christian” in the north had a whole different meaning here in the South. In the north, simply not being Jewish, pretty much meant you were Christian. In the south it meant a whole way of living, a philosophy and in many ways what sounded to me as a pretty exclusive way of perceiving God. We were liberal Episcopalians and that is about as far as I went in my version of being Christian. Anyway, soon enough, Nicholas got wind of this idea and begged me to home school him. I cannot explain how foreign this concept was, but I soon found myself attending information and support groups to figure this out and found a secular-hippie-renegade group to join as well. We met weekly at the YWCA downtown and Nicholas made some friends while I socialized with smart and funny other women who I grew very attached to. My kindergartner and fourth grader were happy at their school and so, every single Tuesday, Nicholas and Gregory and I would go to the Y group downtown.

Near the “Y” was a huge natural foods store called, “Wellspring.” I loved it! I had never really seen anything like it since in Long Island I would procure my natural foods mostly from a teeny, high priced local store in Sag Harbor, called Provisions. I never felt like part of the community in Provisions since it seemed a sort of cult group hung out there. We also belonged to a food co-op where monthly we would dip our arms into vats of barley malt and cut up 50 pound blocks of cheese to divide amongst the members. The co-op did provide me with an education and it was truly where I learned about tofu and tempeh, seitan and soy milk, organic and almost organic. In financially desperate times, my husband and I even began selling organic produce out of our Southampton garage weekly which we bought from a local distributor. We would deliver to the rich and famous and stock their refrigerators with organic cherries, wrap their organic Romaine, etc. So, natural foods had worked their way into our lives in a big way and seeing a mass marketer of the stuff in Wellspring, here in North Carolina warmed my heart.

Gregory loved Tuesdays! He and I would leave Nicholas with the group and do our weekly shopping at Wellspring. He cherished climbing out of the cart and illegally imbibing in the bulk bins for a taste of pecans and granola. He snatched a few organic strawberries in season and there was the tell tale red mess all over his face and shirt incriminating him as we checked out. Gregory was the biggest, giggling, fattest baby most folks had ever seen, so the staff at Wellspring all looked forward to our visits and grew to love this squishy guy of mine. One day, a staff member named Mike, named Gregory –“The Wellspring Baby” and posted his photo in their office with that title.

For the next two glorious years of adjusting to life in North Carolina we continued shopping at Wellspring even when they changed their name to “Whole Foods” (having been bought by a bigger company based in Texas.) In 1995, the most horrific tragedy fell upon our family, when dear, sweet Gregory drowned in a pool on vacation in Long Island. Most of the staff of Wellspring/Whole Foods attended the funeral held here in North Carolina and I still remember their young, weeping faces. They had become a part of our community and held us in their hearts.

So, for 18 years since we have lived in North Raleigh, I have been begging Whole Foods to open a store closer to our area. The downtown one takes me over 30 minutes each way and in North Carolina, as opposed to Long Island, no one drives that far to do anything! I have written letters, put suggestions in their suggestion boxes and more. Today, was the grand opening of that store and I was there for the delicious free breakfast and I pulled a piece of the monster bread that they cut open for good luck as they opened the doors and ate it with a smile.

The store was more gorgeous than I could imagine with a plethora of colors of live and healthful local produce and every natural item you could dream of. What a long, long way we have come from the “Alar pesticide” scares of sprayed apples that triggered a desire for organics in the early 80’s. Look how many sellers are in this business now! There was a pulse and energy in the store as if we were all involved in something for the greater good, whether or not this is true, because alas, this is still big business, it felt that way nevertheless.

So, here are the three times I cried and the loud, cool music in the background only helped to trigger my tears. When I saw the perfect, jam packed produce section I cried in memory of my brother in law, Roman. He and I had a difficult, mostly poor relationship, but there were things I respected and admired about him and his food sense was one of them. He worked in produce in both a wholesale and retail capacity, and even when he was completely short of breath and ill, he still managed to stack those carrots in an artful and appealing way. However, he loved food so much that it lead to his death. Addicted to food from an early age, he ate his way to weighing around 300 pounds and of course his heart, new vessels and all gave out two years ago. He left my sister and their two daughters behind which was heartbreaking. So, today, looking at the beautifully done displays of produce, brought tears to my eyes thinking of how much Roman would have loved this.

Next, 16 years later, I suddenly had this flashback of pushing the shopping cart with Gregory smiling in it and me kissing the top of his bald head as we shopped. I kissed that smooth head over and over while I said, “I am so glad you are mine.” I remembered him being the Wellspring baby and began to cry. I looked at the red, ripe strawberries and cried some more and then the bulk bins and then the Earth’s Best baby foods and when I thought it was all too much, “It’s a Wonderful World” starting playing. I sang that to him all the time, so this nearly had me laying on the floor sobbing.

Finally, when I realized it was high time to check out before being carted away for public hysteria, I remembered to buy some Irish beer because tomorrow is St. Patrick’s Day. This is the day my quintessential Irish father took his last breath in a local nursing facility and died. His last meal was ground up corned beef and cabbage and perhaps his last words had he been able to speak, would have been Erin Go Bragh. It has been 16 years but I still find complete irony in him dying on March 17th, so this too kept my tears rolling.

So, now we have our own mega Whole Foods. I am so glad and though yes, many things are costly there, I think there is a way to shop that makes it feasible. You buy what is on sale, you buy what you can afford, you buy less than you would of an inferior product that has lost its nutrients weeks ago. Adjust your menu, adjust your quantity but know that you are doing your body good, you are helping to keep the environment less toxic, you are supporting a local grower or farmer. And yes, you are supporting a large business but hey, at least they have a bit of heart and they did bring genuine tears to my eyes and my soul.

We Didn’t Know Today Would be the Last Day

On Tuesday, May 3, 1995, Shep and I woke up in the lovely, Southampton home of a friend of ours, Stephanie. She had invited us to use her weekend house while she was away and we were visiting. Nicholas was 13 and wanted to spend the day at a friend’s house. Peter was 11 and had been stung by a bee on his leg, the day before and was still pretty sick from the allergic reaction he had had. Oliver was seven and up for whatever we planned. Gregory was two and had slept without me and without nursing through the night, for the first time, totally randomly and without coaxing. He had made his way through this strange house in the night to the bed his dad was sleeping in a room with the other boys and snuggled up beside him to sleep. I had a glorious and peaceful night where I actually got to sleep through and when I woke up, was shocked to find that Gregory was not next to me as he usually was. I felt good in the morning, but edgy as now it seemed, I wanted even more alone time. I wanted to lay on the couch and read The Southampton Press from cover to cover, undisturbed. Having lived in the Hamptons for 12 years, I still knew many of the people mentioned in the paper. Reading a paper and being the mother of 4 young boys is simply not possible.

We decided to go into town and walk Jobs Lane and then Main Street checking out changes in Lillywhite’s toy store, the boutiques, the restaurants, and to drool over what we had left behind by moving to plain vanilla land in Raleigh, North Carolina, two years prior. In walking, we ran into a few familiar old friends and stopped to chat about old Little League teams, schools our kids had gone to and the like. We ate some lunch in The Driver’s Seat restaurant which was always so enjoyable and then moved on. Peter’s leg still hurt and so he wound up sitting in Gregory’s stroller, while Gregory attempted to push him. It was a hilarious site that entertained many strollers in town that day.

We came back to Stephanie’s house and made some spaghetti for dinner. I was irritable when Gregory kept climbing on the deck bench and leaning over. I was still lusting after alone time, or at least mommy-off-duty time and resented the interruptions. I kept pulling him back each time he leaned over and in retrospect, I only wish I had let him fall. He would have broken bones and that sounds horrific, I know, but read on and you will understand more. Gregory was covered with spaghetti sauce on his blue and white outfit so I changed him into a cute yellow sweatsuit and his multi colored shoes that matched. For reasons I will never understand, we chose to visit a woman I knew from La Leche League who had just given birth to her third child. This was not a close friend of mine, but rather a co-dependent, weak yet radical earth mama who was married to one of the most despicable men I ever met. George was at the time, County Legislator for Suffolk County and when he wasn’t busy cheating on his wife, neglecting his children, or being a total egocentric asshole, he was making derogatory racist or anti-gay comments for those very populations he bragged about defending. Sleazy and repulsive is the only word I can still use to describe this unattractive being.

The truth of the matter is that we could have visited several other people on our first evening back in Southampton to see friends. My best friend, Joan wanted us to come, as did so many others. Who can ever say why we made the choice we did. It will haunt me forever. When we visited, the two older boys played with mine and went in and out of the house shooting basketballs. Anne and I sat admiring her baby, and as was typical for her she referred to astrological charts of each newborn as they came into the world. She had left George more than once and showed up crying, with kids in tow at my home for refuge. I always wondered why she chose our home, since we were not particularly close friends. I tried to figure out now, if that was over or if George was still up to his same slimey tricks. Her newborn nursed on and off as she and I sat in the living room. Shep was in the kitchen talking to Anne’s visiting mom and then, George arrived bragging about the TV show he had just been interviewed for. Gregory wandered in at one point, noticed the baby nursing and so climbed into my lap and nursed as well. It was sweet and more poignant then I could ever know.

For some reason, we all wandered into the kitchen which was where the back door was. George who continued to be unbearably full of himself, showed off his parrot on his shoulder. He told us that it was not easy to determine whether the bird was male or female. “Just my luck,” he said, “that I would end up with a ‘faggot’ parrot!” I remember feeling so confused that this man was such a complete fraud, deriding the very population he claimed to publicly defend. It is hard for me to look at parrots, still.

Minutes later, Shep asked me, “Where is Gregory?” I responded that he was following the boys in and out to the basketball hoop. “No, he responded, I don’t see him.” In that second the entire world changed for six of us and it would never return to how it was one second before. Gregory was indeed floating face down in his yellow sweatsuit, multi colored shoes, in the swimming pool. Shep and George grabbed him and pulled him out. The open gate (The Hamptons had very strict laws about this, but of course, George was completely above the law) had gained him entrance and what happened next, I will never know. I do know that there was running and screaming and sirens and chaos and me jumping up and down in the air in a maniacal, frantic, desperate fashion. I would flip from kneeling and begging God for help to leaping in the air over and over. There were hours in emergency rooms, helicopter airlifting, racing to a larger medical facility and sustained hysteria by us all. There were my kids coming and going, being brought, being removed, being calmed, being lied to, being supposedly — protected. There was no way to protect, no way to calm.

I have written of all the details many times, so I will not repeat. But, in ten hours time, we watched a medical team desperately try to infuse life back into the lifeless body of my darling, chubby child. It crossed my mind that if they would let me nurse him, he would be okay. Truth was that when we pulled him out of that pool, he was already dead even though medical efforts made his heart beat again. We let him go forever at 6:00 am and stepped into the cesspool of our new lives, that would take us years to learn to navigate. If only we had known that the day before would have been the last day. We could have done things differently, I suppose.

Today is that day again, only it is now 15 years later. We have survived without my darling son and we have been given the blessing of two more sons, twins in fact who really are solely responsible for pulling us out of the black hole we lived in following Gregory’s death. As you know, I live each day in search of “the normal day” always consciously pleading and praying that it is not the last one.