Long before it was a catchphrase in politics, Elizabeth Edwards gave meaning to the term “Military Families.” The daughter of a Naval Admiral, she moved with her family to U.S. naval bases around the globe. And so it was, during the height of my political awakening that our paths crossed in the fall of 2004 when I was named part of a small group of women called “Military Moms with a Mission.” My eldest had already been through one tour in Iraq, my baby was graduating from Army basic training as the group was forming, and I had the attitude of a Mother bear (a full four years before “Mamma Grizzlies” became the fashion) watching out for her son’s best interests.
I’d just received my B.S. in Journalism and had all those college resources at my disposal when the war started. I arm myself with the facts of the Iraq War, Bush Administration Military and Foreign Policy, and from Senate and House testimony transcripts, the discussions in those bodies that explored the pros and cons of various actions by the administration. After my “education,” I lent my considerably informed and confident voice to the Kerry/Edwards campaign, knowing that the way forward for our country was by employing all of the tools of foreign policy — military being only the last resort after such things as economic, diplomatic, educational and cultural tools are employed.
So, the DNC and the Kerry/Edwards campaign called upon Nita Martin, Pat Heineman, Lisa Leitz, Lara Bertsch and myself to tour the country on behalf of military mothers and spouses, publicly calling for a new commander in chief during wartime. We were coached and spoiled by some great young folks, including Tara McGuinness, Mike Lake, Marshall Hevron, Melissa Wideman, and others who I know will save our world in years to come, each of them! At times we were joined by fellow wives, especially the stellar Gwen Walz, wife of the great young Minnesota Congressman Tim Walz. Our original group of five first met Elizabeth at a Senior Citizens Center in Ohio. Before the public event, she whirred into a private anteroom where we were waiting and posed for a few photos, spoke with us about our loved ones, and then went off to host the planned town hall meeting, setting a positive tone but putting forth facts and information that countered what the Bush Administration was proposing. She was a brilliant advocate for the Kerry Edwards campaign and a voice that was respected. Her words carried the gravitas of one who would never choose political expediency over the truth.
After our brief encounter, we exchanged hugs with the savvy woman and hopped into our minivans in order to make Columbus by nightfall. Or some such. And our one week tour rolled on to its inevitable conclusion.
Or so we thought. Over the weekend, we each got calls to see if we could fly up to West Virginia for a CSpan televised Town Hall with … Elizabeth Edwards! Doh! It was scheduled for Tuesday and we were flown up Monday afternoon and those of us who needed it (me!) had our hair cut, colored and styled (on our own dime). That evening we shared a private dinner with Elizabeth who showed us that her private self was identical to that which she portrayed in public. Warm, genuine, without any veneer or bullshit. Knowing we’d have this opportunity, I printed up enough copies of the digital photo we’d taken during our first meeting and like in high school yearbooks, all signed one another’s photos. Mine is dear to me, framed and on my desk. Elizabeth included a copy of that image in her first book Saving Graces.
The town hall was preceeded by a few live televised interviews for cable shows, the first of which was CNN. I was to sit next to the great lady and speak live via satellite to the anchors back in Atlanta. We’d been up since 5 a.m. for hair and makeup and I was confident that I looked as attractive as I ever would for this nationally televised feed. But I was still nervous and Elizabeth squeezed my hand and whispered I’d do fine. The interview was so quick and thankfully, most of the Anchor’s interest was focused on Elizabeth. The interviewer asked me about our group’s call for a change in leadership during wartime and I felt it important to establish our credentials as very intelligent, well-informed women. That’s as far as I got before getting cut off. I never got to explain what we’d learned and discovered and felt important to share with the voting public and I was very disappointed. Still, I think the message got across that we weren’t ill-informed women just whining about our sons and husbands having to serve. I was also called upon to represent our group during a live Fox and Friends Morning feed too and I’d been so nervous about this interview, expecting the worst, but it went very well. My dad, recuperating from a stroke in a nursing home had seen it and that’s all I cared about. The other girls had been standing behind us during the interview and other national news crews interviewed Elizabeth and one of them as representative of our group as each network saw fit, based on our bios.
After the excitement of these live national interviews, the town hall forum was a breeze. We all sat in captains chairs onstage in front of an audience of probably 300 or so folks from the Westover, West Virginia area. The one hour program went off beautifully, and of course, Elizabeth made brilliant points I’d never even given thought to before. Including this strong one as to why we needed to extricate ourselves from Iraq as soon as possible and allow the country to self-govern.
“Nobody washes a rental car,” she said simply and then related an incident where the U.S. government had contracted to construct some vital public works facility and it had taken more than 18 months and millions and it was still not completed. They turned over management of this and an identical project to the Iraqis who completed the project in a few short months and on the second effort, well under budget.
My strongest memory of the forum though, occurred near the end, when an aging veteran — in uniform — came and stood directly in front of us onstage. He began talking, and kept talking. And talking. And talking to the point I started to worry we were losing the audience. At that point, Elizabeth graciously got up from her chair, walked over to the man, gave him a gentle hug, and managed to escort him to his seat all while keeping the conversation going and flowing.
We were all sickened at the election results and then downright crushed when we learned of her cancer and sent her flowers as a group. When she was publishing Saving Graces, she asked me to send her the original jpg file. I didn’t think anything more of it until getting a signed copy in the mail months later. Our photo is included, along with a cutline, and her impression of each of us in the copy of the book itself.
Pat, Nita and I met up with Elizabeth at the February 2007 DNC Winter Meeting. Our first ever, we didn’t no what to make of what seemed to me a trade show for the presidential candidates. Each had a hospitality room and after the day’s general sessions, would host specially designated attendees in their rooms. We were not such specially designated attendees although one gentleman I serve with on a couple of vet/milfam advocacy boards is, so he went into the Edwards (he was still a candidate at that time) hospitality suite while we waited by the security area. A moment later, who comes energetically bounding out but Elizabeth, all smiles and hugs. None of us gave a hoot about status and were just so excited and happy to catch up with one another. She escorted us through the security gate and seemed as genuinely happy to see us as we were to see her. We expressed our concern about her health, but she brushed it aside and glowed, as we did, rekindling our connection after three long years.
I can’t believe she is gone, but I choose not to grieve her passing. I do mourn for her lovely children, that they will be deprived of her in their lives as they grow up. But I hope they can always keep her memory close, incorporate her influence, her values and her wisdom. I just discovered this lovely Native American poem that I will now share which may help them and others missing this great, great woman.
“Don’t stand by my grave and weep, for I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow. I’m the diamond’s glint on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn’s rain.
Don’t stand by my grave and cry. I am not there. I did not die.”