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Elizabeth Edwards: A Legacy of Caring

Getty Images / Washington Post

In 2014 Cate Edwards spoke with about her mother's legacy.

Elizabeth Edwards in 2007 (AP Photo / Mark Duncan)

Elizabeth Edwards, who lost her long and public fight against breast cancer Dec. 7, 2010, didn't seek the spotlight. Instead, it found her when her husband, John, decided to run for political office. She embraced her role, becoming her husband's closest adviser during his stint in the U.S. Senate, when he was the Democratic nominee for vice president in 2004, and as he sought his party's presidential nod in 2008. Both savvy and strong, she was an outspoken advocate for universal health care, took an early stand in favor of gay marriage, and publicly declared that her husband had erred in supporting the Iraq War.

Edwards also saw her personal challenges — including the death of her son, Wade, at age 16 in a 1996 car accident, her six-year battle with breast cancer and her husband's infidelity — become topics of public conversation. Yet she didn't hide. She was very frank about her struggles. She seemed relatable, as imperfect as the rest of us. O magazine once dubbed her "the most refreshing political spouse since Eleanor Roosevelt," while The Washington Post noted she was a "shoo-in for 'regular person.'" Edwards shared her survival tactics and other life lessons in two best-selling books: 2006's Saving Graces: Finding Solace and Strength from Friends and Strangers and 2009's Resilience: Reflections on the Burdens and Gifts of Facing Life's Adversities.

Elizabeth Edwards was 61 when she died. Cate Edwards spoke about her mother's legacy.

Your mother was known for her grace under pressure. Could you talk about that and how she affected others?

"One of her quotes I really loved was when she was talking about the adversities she'd faced. She said she wanted her legacy to be that, 'She stood in the storm, and when the wind (did not) blow her away … she adjusted her sails.' I feel that really encompasses her as a person. … There's a sort of wake of greatness that follows in her path, from the strength she displayed and the way she encouraged others. She had the capacity to make everyone around her feel better, whether she helped make them stronger in the face of adversity or lifted them up to achieve more than they ever thought possible or whether it was simply by providing humor and joy."

What were some of the life lessons she left you and your younger siblings?

"In the professional context, always do everything 100 percent the best you can. You put your best foot forward. You don't shortchange your work. It becomes your reputation. It becomes your legacy.

"She always liked to talk about life as a tapestry, and the threads that run through it are the people we surround ourselves with and the people we touch. Some of the threads are thick and run all the way through our tapestry. Some are smaller. But these tapestries are what we wrap ourselves in when we need comfort."

What was she like as a mother?

"She was your constant cheerleader, your constant supporter, your constant teacher. She was all of the things a mother should be. … She thought, 'The best thing you can give your children is wings because you're not always going to be there to bring food back to the nest.' She taught us to fly on our own, to walk on our own, to become the best version of ourselves as adults, whether she was here or not. She was also nurturing and comforting, but the thing I think of most when remembering her as a mother is who she taught us to be as individuals."

You founded the Elizabeth Edwards Foundation in 2011. The nonprofit partners with high school sophomores and provides mentorship, academic support and other guidance. How does this reflect your mother's legacy?

"She was someone who helped me become everything that I could. She would stay up late with me reading. She drove me around to colleges, 17 in less than a week, to make sure I saw everything I could and thought about my future. She helped me see it and shape it. ... The Elizabeth Edwards Foundation finds high school kids who have great potential but don't have great support systems and provides them with an Elizabeth, so to speak. Someone who can help them see a bright future, someone who provides them guidance, someone who helps them be the best they can."

What would someone need to do to follow in your mother's footsteps?

"I think her legacy is so vast and encompassing, but largely it's caring for and lifting up others. She had an impact on so many different people in so many different ways. … The best thing you can do is find someone that you can positively impact and do everything that you can to lift that person up. That can happen in a number of different ways: It can be volunteering or engaging in public service. It can be helping someone you know professionally or personally. It can be turning on a flashlight for a child to see a future they never imagined."

Originally published December 2014