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Wade's death became the defining event in his parents' lives, as it remains today. En route to the beach, coastal winds blew the 16-year-old's car off the road before it flipped over, killing him instantly. His passenger, a schoolmate, survived. The evening before the funeral, hundreds of mourners greeted the couple on a reception line. "Elizabeth would search their faces to see if they might have a special reason to stand there," says old friend and classmate Glenn Bergenfield. "To watch her comfort everyone who had come that night, it was beautiful. Imagine 1,400 people whose hearts are breaking."

After burying Wade, John threw himself into his job, winning a $25 million jury verdict for the family of a 5-year-old girl whose intestines were sucked out by a faulty swimming pool drain. Elizabeth quit hers. She visited the cemetery every day, sitting on a blanket and reading aloud the entire 12th-grade reading list. "Some days I am nothing at all but a mother who lost her son," she wrote to the Internet support group she joined after Wade's death.

A "passive Christian" until then, Edwards pondered her faith. "If I had a God who would intervene but hadn't, I couldn't accept that God any longer," she says. Struggling, she constructed the only God that now made sense: one who offered salvation and enlightenment but not intervention. Online, she bristled at those who suggested Wade might be refused entry to heaven because he had not made a profession of faith. "There is no heaven for me without my boy," she wrote. "I am not interested in a God who exiles my son."

Looking for a way to honor his memory, the Edwardses met with Thomas Sayre, a Raleigh sculptor, and together designed a 106-foot-long curving bench for Broughton High School, which Wade had attended. Shaped like a comet to represent a short, bright life, it featured 70 fine-grained handprints, each belonging to one of his friends.

Sayre cast the molds in a brick studio converted from an old warehouse. As the students pressed their palms into the 110-degree wax, Edwards hovered nearby, making sure to photograph each child. "It's a very intimate thing to place their hands in wax and squish the fingernails so they went down deep enough," Sayre says. "It was moving for me to touch all these hands, and know that I wouldn't touch Wade's."

By the time the bench was dedicated the following spring, the new Wade Edwards Learning Lab stood across the street with 25 computers for students who didn't have one at home. Above all, his death forced a re-examination of Edwards's priorities. "I've spent a lot of words on my own mortality," she says, referring to her recent diagnosis. "But honestly, it's not something that cancer taught me. It's something that Wade's death taught me. Life is this great big blackboard, and on it you write all the things that you do. You write your job, you write your mowing the lawn, you write your buying Girl Scout cookies, or that you're the manager for the soccer team. Sometimes you want to fit something else in; you're just trying to find a little space. Then you lose a child and everything is erased. You start to think how silly it was, some of those things you put on the board. First time you pick up the chalk to write again, you're a lot more careful about what you write there. You realize that it actually matters how you spend your life."

Two years after Wade's death, she gave birth to Emma Claire, the third of the couple's four children. Edwards was 48. By then, John had declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate.

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