Janet Archibald was free- spirited, fun loving and active.
The oldest of eight children, Janet was accustomed to looking out for others. She drew strength from being a role model to her four brothers and three sisters, and a source of hope and encouragement for parents JoAnn and Gil Rosipal.
At 54, she gave no indication of slowing down.
Janet barged into mid life with trademark enthusiasm and energy.
She was much too busy for a mid life crisis.
In fact, during the Fall of 2009, she and husband Pat were enjoying the good life. They had purchased Bill's Sporting Goods in Waynesville two years earlier, fulfilling a lifelong dream to own their own business. With the business running smoothly, they were planning to build a dream home in Waynesville. And to cap it all off, they were helping daughter April plan a fabulous, over- the-top wedding. As Pat and Janet's beloved only child, April's marriage was to be a symbolic celebration of love, faith and family.
Life was good.
Perhaps that is why family members were not overly concerned with early symptoms of Janet's illness; a persistent cough that seemed out of character for one as hard working and perpetually healthy as Janet.
But there were other reasons for the family's tunnel vision.
For years, their collective prayers and concern had been directed towards Janet's younger sister Charli. Diagnosed with an enlarged heart in her late 20's, Charli went on the organ transplant list following an attempted valve replacement surgery in 2007. With each passing day, Charli's condition worsened as she waited for a donor.
And Janet was the glue that kept them all together, encouraging Charli to hang on while helping her parents and extended family deal with the uncertainty of Charli's illness.
But when Janet began coughing up blood, sister Gina Foster, a Mercy RN, urged her to go to the emergency room.
Following an examination and CAT scan, Janet and her family were stunned to learn that Janet had stage four-lung cancer.
It was the beginning of a painful and agonizing journey.
Janet was determined to fight.
And the family that had already endured so much, rallied for another life and death battle. Through careful planning, they were able to be present, supporting Janet through every painful step of her journey through radiation treatments and chemotherapy.
When Janet lost her hair, family members wore funny head coverings in her honor and matching shirts that proclaimed "I wear this for my hero" to the family Thanksgiving celebration.
"She never complained. She never asked why me?," sister Gina recalls.
Page 2 of 3 - Always thinking of others, Janet grieved when chemotherapy forced her to remove her name from organ donor lists.
Meanwhile, Charli's condition deteriorated and she moved to the top of the transplant list. But no donors materialized, and doctor's began to doubt she was healthy enough to survive the transplant. On December 19, 2009, the family was told she would not make it through the night.
Family members rallied to support the two sisters. Parents JoAnn and Gil prayed as they divided their time as best they could between two terminally ill daughters in different cities.
"I felt so powerless," JoAnn recalls.
But Charli clung to life.
Shortly thereafter, the family learned that Janet's cancer had moved to her breast.
A woman of faith, Janet prayed diligently, carrying a wooden rosary with her during MRI testing.
Shortly thereafter, she underwent a mastectomy. Determined to fight on, family members participated with Janet in the Relay for Life.
And then came a Sunday miracle.
An organ donor was located for Charli. She would have her new heart. She underwent surgery in late December, and gradually began the long process of recovery.
No one was more enthusiastic about Charli's miracle than Janet. Ever the caring, big sister, Janet savored Charli's new lease on life.
"It was hard, because I felt guilty. I couldn't really celebrate my recovery with Janet still fighting for her life," Charli reminisces.
In a tragic twist of fate, Janet learned that the cancer had moved to her brain, even as Charli took her first tentative steps toward a life free from the looming specter of death.
For the first time, Charli got to be the caregiver, taking her place beside other family members to support and encourage Janet and her immediate family.
A little sister had come of age.
Sister Gail Bush, a teacher, recalls how her fiercely independent and modest older sister now demonstrated uncharacteristic vulnerability, entrusting her and others to move her from place to place, feed her, bathe her, and change her clothes. Through it all, Gail recalls, Janet exuded a remarkable sense of calm that was contagious.
Concerned about Janet's declining health, April moved up and scaled back her wedding plans. She and husband Brandon wed on May 1, 2010. "Mom was in the best spirits ever! She was amazing and danced the night away at my reception," April recalls.
Realizing that her journey was at an end, Janet gathered her loved ones to share yet another dream that she hoped others would bring to life on her behalf. She wanted to leave a legacy, to provide a fund that would help patients and families purchase things that give life meaning and purpose, comforts that insurance companies may not cover.
Page 3 of 3 - Things like…
journals, pet care, trips to the beauty shop, house cleaning, e-readers, board games, wheelchair ramps, gas cards and pedicures and…..the list went on. Throughout her illness, Janet never stopped caring for others. She brought cookies to the nursing staff, insisted on throwing a birthday party for her little neighbor Emma, and reminded her sisters to pay her monthly support pledge for an underprivileged child even as medical bills piled up around her.
And she couldn't bear the possibility that such acts of kindness, the very things that give life meaning and a sense of normalcy, might cease at her passing.
A tiny seed, that would eventually become the Janet's Wish fund, took root in the grieving hearts of Janet's family as they assured her they would carry on her dream.
When doctors suggested Janet qualified for Hospice, daughter April refused to accept the inevitability of her mother's death, clinging to hope that she might still recover.
But Janet the older sister, the humble leader who always forged a path for others to follow, was once again showing the way into a new phase of life.
Janet's battle ended on a Wednesday in July.
Against overwhelming odds, she survived for nearly two years.
And the family that had worked so tirelessly to preserve life is now learning to grieve.
It is, ultimately, a solitary journey.
But April, who couldn't talk about or mention her mother's name for months following her death, is growing stronger. She claims "Gina has become a barometer for our grief."
As a barometer measures high and low air pressure to warn of coming storms, Gina is trying to walk through her grief in a manner that would honor Janet's memory, while empowering others to do the same.
It is a time of redefinition, as family members attempt to find their place at a table with one less seat. Who will lead? Who will follow? And how will we get there?
Despite her absence, Janet has given them their marching orders. As they work together to bring to life the Janet's Wish fund, a sense of renewed purpose and unity emerges.
"She will come alive for me," says Charli, as plans for the Janet's Wish fund sparkle in her eyes.
And April echoes the sentiment, "It's time for me to stop asking why me? Mom would have been upset. That's not how she taught me to live."
A daughter has found peace and purpose at last.