Tuesday, December 7, 2010

On Grief and the Death of Elizabeth Edwards

As I'm sure most folks have heard by now, Elizabeth Edwards--ex-wife of former presidential candidate John Edwards--has died, from terminal cancer. She had only just decided to stop receiving treatment--on the advice of her doctors, who informed her that the cancer had spread to her bones. Not a day later, she was gone.

I can only imagine the sadness her loved ones must be feeling during this time. Everything that she went through, from the cancer diagnosis to her husband's infidelity and fathering an illegitimate child, no doubt took a great toll on her. From every story I have read, it seems she carried herself with dignity, grace, and comportment, despite having to experience all of this under the intense scrutiny of the public eye.

And now, this terrible disease, which went into remission once before, returned to ravage her body further. If nothing else, I am sure her family feels a sense of relief that she has been released from her pain.

But this does not change the fact that she is gone, and that her passing comes at one of the most difficult times of the year: the holidays.

I have some experience in this area, as it were.

In 2001, my one grandpa died four days before Christmas. I was home from my freshman year of college on winter break. My grandma called to tell me, and I felt my heart sink to my knees and my hands grow cold around the receiver as I said goodbye to her. What I did next was one of the hardest things I've ever had to do. I was the only one home, and I called my mother at school, where she was teaching. The secretary in the main office answered and informed me that my mom was in class.

"It's an emergency," I said softly, and told her the news. She did not hesitate to page my mom after that. The air seemed to still when she came on the phone a few minutes later, and then I heard myself tell my mom that her father had died.

My other grandpa died on Thanksgiving in 2003. My parents and I were standing in my aunt's house when my father got a call on his cell phone. He was perfectly calm as he told us, and we left immediately, heading up to his cousin Karim's house, where his side of the family would be.

Nobody spoke as we waited for my great-aunt Lollie and my Aunt Nancy to get there. I remember them walking into the kitchen--my great-aunt in a white sweatshirt with the word "Florida" emblazoned on the front, her straw-like hair freshly dyed and hairsprayed to unprecedented stiffness on top of her head, and the long bags under her eyes, set with wrinkles and stained with dried tears.

She hardly said a word--unheard of, for her--and was followed in by my Aunt Nancy. Her voice was choked as she greeted each of us, the gold Syrian bracelets on her wrist jingling as her hands shook. "He looked like he was just taking a nap!" she sobbed. I cast my eyes to the ground, ignoring the now-fetid smell of the turkey still cooking in the oven.

Last year, my great-uncle Sammy died on Christmas Eve. And though the loss was not as powerful as the previous two, I saw my other cousins swept in a tide of their own sorrow, and I grieved with them for their "giddo" (Arabic word for "grandpa").

I remember the wake. The beautiful stained glass in St. Ann's, a Byzantine Catholic church, and the colorful icons painted across the domed ceiling. I felt the blue carpet beneath my feet, and the cold from the doors opening and closing.

And Kathy, sister of my dad's previously mentioned cousin, Karim. She had been taking care of my great-uncle (her father) for the previous several months. I could see relief in her face, mixed in with the overwhelming grief. I wanted to say something to her, offer a word of comfort, for what little it might have meant. So I took her hand and said:

"I'm sorry. I know right now you're feeling like Christmas will never be the same again. The truth is, it does change your holiday forever--at first, you mourn and grieve, as is natural. But as time goes on, you start to celebrate--to incorporate the things that person stood for into your celebration. Instead of dwelling on what their death took away from the holiday, you remember all that they gave to it, all of the good that came from their presence and how much it meant. How part of them is still there, even after death, and always will be, just as long as you remember."

As I stood in the post office today, attempting to stave off the stress of a long line and only one clerk behind the desk, I thought of this. Of Christmases gone by, Christmases spent with my grandparents. I can still smell my grandmother's cooking in the kitchen, still see their tree festooned with blue-and-yellow ribbons, white twinkling lights, and numerous ornaments.

Christmas is not the same now, not as it was then, nor will it ever be--but it's inside of me. I'll be damned if I can remember a single present I ever got from my grandparents, but that love is something I will never forget. It is my great hope that in time, Kathy and my cousins and the family of Elizabeth Edwards will find their grief lessened, and that good memories will take its place, trading the cold in for the warmth.

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