12/13/2010 08:25 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Elizabeth Edwards: A Lesson

The passing of Elizabeth Edwards is tragic and, in the context of recent events involving the excruciatingly public scandal involving her ex-husband, meaningful. But it is not monumental.

It is the way of things.

In 1990, my sister Abbe died as a result of an infection in the immediate aftermath of a bone marrow extraction subsequent to the transplant of said -- now newly-irradiated -- marrow.

Nine years earlier, she had struggled with a misdiagnosed lymphoma, enduring chemotherapy and radiation but, having responded well, made a recovery that was seemingly complete and oddly, at least to my limited perceptions, fairly easy. Obviously, when she was in the hospital there were myriad visits from me and our mother (all-nighters pulled mostly by her), our grandparents and friends, her rooms decorated and redecorated to reflect her increasing strength and blossoming optimism and lots of rude gallows humor (a family hallmark).

There were also, of course, stretches of hellish discomfort for my sister and the torture of having to watch her at the mercy of the invading microscopic horde, helpless to assist her, scared of the implications of my usually tough sister suddenly rendered so vulnerable. But over time, her recovery had become just another chapter in what would otherwise surely go on to be a relatively routine rest of her life.

And then, nine years later, the attack resumed.

After weighing her options, Abbe chose the more radical bone marrow transplant procedure than the violently awful course of chemotherapy prescribed for her by her doctors, a period of certain discomfort on a level I was only now, nine years after my sister had recovered, grasping. In the intervening years, I had matured somewhat, experienced the sudden death from a heart attack of my father and my grandfather's slow descent and death -- our joke was that our family kept a running tab at the funeral home.

I had also of late developed a stronger bond with my sister who was three years my senior and who always seemed to be bemused at my random stretches of luck, most of it dumb, some of it earned, but who was now, in her illness less inclined to indulge such feelings. They were for less dreadful times than these surely were. For me, this bond-strengthening moment came as I held her late one night while she wearily vomited the brown toxic chemotherapy drug Vin Christine into a bedpan, her birdlike frame gently convulsing within my hands. Her vulnerability, which was her essence -- all humanity's essence -- had revealed itself to me.

And then, at about 1:30 a.m. following that day's bone marrow removal, when she was at her most defenseless, she died.

And, like a scenario out of The Shock Doctrine writ small, my sister had been attacked and destroyed and my family's world changed forever.

Indeed, the passing of human lives great and small throws the truth of how we lead our lives into bright relief; the profound personal impact of death should suggest that we live in observance of the lessons such profundity imparts.

But that is not the case. Rather than our mortality humbling us, it can make us arrogant, profane. It provokes a rancor and distrust in people who see life as an competition in which to seek victory rather than as an opportunity to embrace the collective, unifying reality of our brief existences.

More than that, such a result suggests the possibility that certain, if not all, our political ideologies are essentially superficial control-fantasies, frantic attempts to bat away the terrifying reality that our lives are mere, brief flickers of consciousness, mattering little. That would explain the ferocity behind such threats to civil democracy as the corporatism that plagues our sociopolitical landscape. The nature of that beast, it seems, is to wage war within and without, declaring the essential efficacy of the war itself, reveling in its inevitable damage and profitability.

That's what lymphoma does: It wages cruel war, it subjugates its vulnerable host, it crushes hope. And the merciless contradictions inherent in the philosophies of those who would abolish all regulation for men but profess to obey rules writ by God are glaring and ape the actions of nature's crueler achievements instead of attaining the grace its ability to reason -- the very thing a cancer does not possess -- offers.

The lesson, the takeaway, is that human behavior has a chance to do "the way of things" one better. At the very least, humans can follow the same course available to all of nature's creatures, a mindless chain of Darwinian harmony, all of which ends in the meaningless snuffing out of individual sparks of life.

But taken in this context, what is the lesson gleaned from Elizabeth Edwards' very public life and death?

To be reminded once again that life is brief, and that while heroics are rare, the courage that ultimately accompanies the final moments that come to us all is not.

And so potent is that courage, that in imagining a world where it would be routinely employed by elected leaders and esteemed educators in our daily lives, integrated into our sociopolitical discourse, the result would be utopian beyond ideological dreams of power, profit or peace. It would be where humanity's potential is finally realized, where wisdom, mercy and grace are routinely attained and invading hordes on both the micro and macro level would stand far less of a chance than they do now.

The key is to understand the special component that separates humans from a microbe -- or, say, cancer -- that key being reason, and apply it. That, at least, is what I took away from my sister Abbe's death, the death of Elizabeth Edwards, and the lives lived under daily attack from the merciless ideologies that render us no better than the reflexively cold and unsparing impulses that seek only to conquer and profit.

And all too frequently do.