When you have lived long enough, you realize your mama's wisdom: that you truly have only one life to live. The question then is, how will you live your life? I ask myself some version of this question out loud at the start of every year. I find myself asking it early this go-round, urged forward by the death of the dynamic Elizabeth Edwards.
Have you ever thought about how you would live your life if you learned that you had only six years left? What would you do if you lost a child? What would you do if you were betrayed by someone who had pledged to honor your heart? Have you ever imagined how you would react if you were publicly humiliated — on an international stage?
These were realities for the wife of the former senator, former vice presidential candidate and former presidential candidate John Edwards. She will always be known as the "wife of," but she was also a best-selling author and successful lawyer.
Virtually anybody would have forgiven this mother of four for losing it in one way or another. Put yourself in her shoes for a moment. Would you have turned a blind eye or even cheered if she had hauled off and hit Rielle Hunter — or her husband, for that matter — after the two had an affair right under her nose while she was engineering her husband's presidential bid? What would you have done if your husband's secret lover had a baby with him (and lied about it) exactly while you were in the throes of battling life-threatening cancer?
What Elizabeth Edwards did was noble. What she did was to stand up, brush off her shoulders, decide that she would straightforwardly play the hand of life she was dealt, and do it with integrity and grace according to her own rules.
This woman — often called average because she wasn't slim (like so many political wives), she wasn't eye candy (like Sarah Palin), she wasn't anything other than what most other American women are (just regular) — walked with a depth of integrity and sense of self that few today can call their own.
Trust that none of what she did was easy. But I bet you it has paved the way for a depth of healing in her family. Too often I have witnessed families break up because of infidelity or even other, lesser crimes of the heart, and the children suffer because the parents never found their way back to caring for their offspring as they attempted to figure out how to be apart but remain good parents.
There is much to contemplate about Mrs. Edwards' life. Perhaps the overarching lesson is that a life well lived is one lived based on the values you hold dear. I'm sure that it's easier to sleep soundly when you know that you are living your values. Of course that requires you to know what those values are. And there's where we can all step in.
Let's use Mrs. Edwards' passing as a reminder to refresh our own glance in the mirror. What do you value? What is important to you in relationships, in family, in community? What does personal integrity look like in your own life?
If you died tomorrow, what legacy would you leave? Would people who know you and those who know of you honestly be able to speak kind words about you? What would you want them to keep to themselves? What would bring you shame?
Pay attention to the things you would like to erase from your life. While you cannot actually expunge actions or experiences from your life's playbook, you can mend fences. You can apologize for cruelty or negligence. You can commit to becoming a better you for yourself and those whose lives you touch.
All of us have work to do on ourselves. I'm sure Mrs. Edwards believed that there was more she could do in her own life. The stories her friends are sharing right now suggest that up until the moment she died, she was taking action to be the best Elizabeth she could be. Can you say the same about yourself?
Harriette Cole is the president and creative director of Harriette Cole Media. She is a life stylist, a best-selling author and a nationally syndicated advice columnist. She is a contributing editor to The Root.