The first time I got bad medical news was 11 years ago. I responded what with then was (and sometimes still is) characteristic bluster. I confidently told my doctor that I would crush this little obstacle and soon resume my life as normal. My doctor back then was a young cocky guy, much like myself, who was also my friend. He fixed me with a slightly angry glare and said, “You have to come to grips with the fact that Cystic Fibrosis is a progressive disease.” As I walked out of his office that day, I muttered one word under my breath but still loud enough so he could definitely hear me: “A**hole.”
He was right, of course, and I was very wrong. And young and stupid. As I often tended to do back then, I conflated bravado with courage. Generally speaking, it was a harmless youthful personality tic. But when I was actively planning on denying reality…well, that was another matter. Over time, as my condition worsened and got more serious, denial was no longer an option. Compromise became the order of the day. On the golf course, I used to carry my bag for 36 holes a day. First I began to take a caddy. Then a cart. Soon I was playing twice a week instead of twice a day. On more serious matters, compromises were also necessary. When you get sick, really sick, you wind up compromising on just about everything. Your disease forces you into the habit.
I CAN’T TELL YOU HOW BAD I FEEL FOR ELIZABETH AND JOHN EDWARDS. I’m familiar with the body-blow of a sudden diagnosis that turns your world upside down. It’s incredible – you walk into a doctor’s office and within a span of minutes you find out your life will never be the same. In the back of your mind you nourish the hopes of miracle cures or that you might be like that guy in Dubuque who got the same diagnosis but oddly enough lived forever, but the reality of the situation sits there in your mind. You can’t shake it – it just won’t leave. But you try to carry on. I think I may know some of what the Edwards are feeling. They’ve been running for the White House for seven years now. And make no mistake – as Hugh points out in his book, running for president is a family affair. It’s more than a dream and an ambition for them. It’s a big part of what defines their lives.
So they walked out of that doctor’s office refusing to let her disease take their lives away. Some people are calling their decision courageous; others find it puzzling. Having been in a situation analogous to theirs, I think I have some understanding and I know I have some sympathy. They’re working through all of this. Their first instinct is not to surrender. That’s good, and it’s what you would have expected. People who seek the presidency aren’t the types who give up or even compromise easily. THROUGH THE YEARS, I’VE COME TO VIEW SERIOUS and progressive illness as an ever constricting circle with oneself at the center. The interior of the circle represents the contents of one’s life. As the circle gets smaller, things that were inside get forced out. Some of these things are dearly missed; other items that were once thought precious get forced to the exterior and turn out to go surprisingly unlamented.
At the innermost point of the circle are the things that really matter: Family, faith, love. These things stay with you until the day that you die. At the very end, because the circle has shrunk down to its center, they’re all you have left. But as we approach that end, we finally realize that all along they were what mattered most. As a consequence, life often remains beautiful and worthwhile right up until the end. The past several years for me have been a journey to what’s at the center of my life. One of the things I found there that I didn’t expect to was writing. (You lucky people.)
The Edwards have begun their own journey of that sort. Whether they still find presidential politics at the center of their lives a few months from now is an open question. Regardless, the journey is theirs, and one would have a heart of stone to wish them anything other than good luck and Godspeed.