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Amb. Swanee Hunt

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How Shall We Die?

Posted: 12/30/10 01:45 PM ET

Looking back on this year, one of the most poignant moments for me was the death of Elizabeth Edwards, former wife of and public advocate for presidential hopeful John Edwards of North Carolina.

In 2008 she was in my home - one of a group of women spending time at Harvard honing their visions, whether as journalists, astrophysicists, military strategists, or political reformers. Toward the end of the evening, as she left, we had this unforgettable exchange.

I: Please think carefully about a role in an Obama administration. You'd make an outstanding diplomat. And you really should be representing this country. You are beloved, across the lines.

She: It's amazing how many people love you when you're terminal.

That was it. The sardonic twist. Not unkind. Gentle even. And right-to-the-core true.

Here was a mother who had lost her 16-year old son. She was living with a death sentence - breast cancer spread to her bones. And she went to sleep knowing she soon would be leaving two children for others to raise. Those were rotten luck parts of her life. Pile on National Inquirer scrutiny exposing the secret that her partner of thirty years was in bed with another woman as she was crisscrossing the country campaigning for him.

This woman knew serial suffering, but she was a survivor. Sick? Yes. Bruised? Yes. Scarred? Yes. Broken? No. In fact, when I think of her in our home, I remember one of the sturdiest, whole women I ever hope to meet.

As she was leaving, Elizabeth and I turned and looked at the group of about thirty, talking among themselves. You know, I said, the interesting thing is that one of them will probably die before you do, but she just doesn't know it.

In fact, the unfortunate one was in the next room, sitting at his desk, listening to a Mozart concerto. In September I lost my husband of 25 years to the same brain cancer as Senator Kennedy. Charles Ansbacher, symphony conductor, White House Fellow, arts entrepreneur, community leader. Mutual love and loyalty held our marriage together when the going got rough. But after we had our bearings and were ready to spend the next three decades together, it turned even rougher. Still, despite his own death sentence, he was able to conduct for 9,000 people ten days before the end, then die with dignity, without tubes and machines, in my arms. Sad, but how very, very lucky we were.

In the past year, I've had two teachers about life and death. Elizabeth Edwards proved again and again what she was made of: passing on her courage through a personal memoir, campaigning for health care reform, and, leaving this world with the ultimate grace. And we others in the room? What suffering will each of us endure? We behave as if we're certain (which is fine), when we don't have a clue; for even as we concentrate on how we're living, we're all dying.

And so the ontological question that follows us through every moment and through every decision is more than "How shall we live?" It's also "How shall we die?"