It's raining so hard at Raleigh's Meredith College that the orchestra has cut short "Pomp and Circumstance" and workers are scrambling to lay vinyl tarps over the diplomas. Parading into a waterfront amphitheater, each member of the class of 2007 sports a pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. The gesture isn't lost on Edwards, today's keynote speaker. Shoulders draped with a purple commencement stole, she stands on the faculty receiving line, smiling serenely, applauding the 373 graduates of the former Baptist women's seminary.
Her hair, grown out long, blows wildly as she approaches the podium. Two months earlier, she says, "If you'd asked me that day whether I had confronted my mortality, I would have confidently—and erroneously—said yes. The death of a son, conversations across the country with people who are on the edge, embracing mothers of children who are serving in Iraq and Afghanistan: I had a lot of reasons to think that I had confronted mortality. But in truth I had not." Now she urges the women here to understand what it took her 57 years to learn, and even then only under duress, that "what we do, how we do it, does define us.
"You're young," she continues. "Maybe there will be time for a do-over if you don't get it right the first time. But...there will come a time, as it might have come for me, when there isn't ... every opportunity to reach out, to speak, to touch someone is precious to me, for I don't know how long I have to complete my story."
There is not a person here who can miss the catch in her voice. Edwards is a millionaire, but that won't buy the important things: "Only in America," she says, "could there be a T-shirt that says 'He who dies with the most toys wins.'" What matters, she goes on, are all the people in her life who form a tapestry. She looks up at the graduates. "I need to ask you now to envision the tapestry that you have woven so far," she says. "There are wide ribbons, and there are sturdy cords. But it's a line drawing, isn't it, really? What's missing? What's missing are the tiny threads that give detail to our tapestry, that give the life to our story. Who are these threads? They are Jen, the guard at the gate who waves at you as you come in. Call the guard by her name. Ask about her life." Take notice, too, she counsels, of the child you tutored or the neighbor whose lawn you mowed. "It takes even less than that: the waiter who will serve you lunch later, who spends eight hours a day serving strangers, someone to whom a kind word is a gift of decency that acknowledges his worth."
It seems too corny to be true, but the rain has stopped falling. The tiniest shard of sunlight finds its way down to the campus. Edwards's voice, suffused with conviction, has grown clear and strong. "The toys won't do you any good when you die," she repeats. "A tapestry well woven will mean for all of eternity that you mattered."