While I do not know everything Jan’s husband and children have done to honor her, this is what I do know. They have each promoted her book, in different ways, both online and by working with cancer centers and societies.
Jan’s husband, Jim, is an artisan. He created a large sign for her memorial service that now hangs over the entryway to their home. It has the carved words All will be well. Also Jim created a sculpture from Jan’s metal hip bone and her wedding ring. He has returned to Grace United Methodist, the church he and Jan loved and supported in Indiana, Pennsylvania. Jim also began a new activity, pickleball, with some dear friends of his and Jan’s, which must bring her delight in heaven, knowing he is not as much of a loner as she imagined.
Jan and Jim’s daughter Tara posts about her grief process on Facebook, inviting others to understand grief better. She has journeyed with others who have suffered losses like hers.
Their son, Brett, posts a new photograph, mostly from Colorado where he lives, with the tag #Findbeautyeveryday, which honors Jan’s attitude toward nature.
Their daughter Julie initiated an Instagram account, @textingthroughcancer, to share encouragement from Jan’s book. She also created visual art and music honoring joy and loss.
Each family member grieves in separate, mostly private ways. COVID made grieving Jan’s death even harder because of our isolation. However, on Christmas night, 2020, Brett arranged an extended family Zoom call. Over 25 family members from the east coast to the west gathered to virtually wish each other a Merry Christmas. Jan’s kids continue to honor her by staying in close touch with their dad.
Ways I honor Jan and how her book was completed
During the entire time my sister worked on her book, we communicated about her writing, and I gave her suggestions. I spent the entire month of January 2020 reading and editing each sentence. I helped write Jan’s final column because, although she created all the ideas, she was not well enough to complete it. After her death, I fulfilled my promise to her to get her book into print, spending many hours reviewing the book and collaborating with Upper Room Books freelance editor Amy Lyles Wilson. I considered it my last gift to Jan, not realizing there would be other opportunities to give her more. Jan had basically completed all the chapters, so I just added her last newspaper column, “Goodbye Popcorn,” as her final chapter.
I also added the last section, “A Word About the Author,” integrating some of Jan’s biography with her daughter Tara’s beautifully written obituary. I consulted with Jim, Jan’s husband, on these last two sections, and he also contributed ideas whenever we asked. Throughout 2020, I probably put in well over 500 hours editing, re-editing, and collaborating with freelance editor Amy Lyles Wilson, a woman with a great heart and great skill.
Although I suffered writer’s block, I found comfort from being in Jan’s writing group, The Appalachian Writers’ Circle, and my local writing group. Very slowly I began to write again, especially poetry. I also promoted Jan’s book online and with friends, and I continue to lead book discussions. I try remembering each of her family members on special occasions. My husband and I stay in touch with Jim through texts and phone calls.
I now enjoy the privilege of belonging to her writers’ group, Appalachian Sisters, through Zoom. Further, I work with Elizabeth Kalu, Jan’s “adopted daughter” from Kenya. Jan supported Elizabeth throughout her undergraduate work and later at Yale Seminary, assisting with her English when she wrote papers. I now help Elizabeth as she works toward an advanced degree in hospital chaplaincy at Yale.
I’m closing with two pieces I have written since Janet died. Writing has helped me process my feelings.
Since her death,
I’ve swallowed my pen.
My womb holds stillborn words,
Grief’s labor lost,
My existence is a blur,
Resting my heaviness
On a tear-stained pillow,
Night into day into night,
Poetry’s rhythm is out of sync,
Because her embrace is out of reach.
I go tripping over emptiness,
Exhausted in my mourning march,
Days and seasons go missing,
Waiting to be born again.
I clutch her strong vision,
“All will be well,”
—Marilyn Watrous Emanuel
Just a Breath Away
The other night I deeply missed you, dear Jan. Lying in bed, I clicked on your memorial service, held June 11, 2020, at your beloved Yellow Creek Park. I had not heard it in almost a year. I heard the sweet, melodious refrain from the song “Going Home,” transporting me to the tree-laden lakeside with wind and light filtering through leaves and caressing water.
I heard your pastor passionately preach from the Good Book and from your good life, sharing the hope we have in the tender mercies of Jesus.
I heard your grieving, adoring husband, Jim, eulogizing you as the most loving, giving person he ever knew. He talked about how, as soon as you knew you had cancer, you wanted to use it for good, and how your honest, initial Facebook prayer request garnered an overwhelming response.
Then, it came to you almost like a dream, to write a column, its title immediately forming: “Texting Through Cancer.” Soon you and your small-town newspaper editor had an agreement. Over the next four years, you never missed a weekly column, despite surgery, chemo, radiation, or impending death, until your last post. You became a hero in Indiana [PA] because your column recorded your resilient faith, transparency, and love for your neighbors.
I heard the beloved hymn “It Is Well with My Soul,” a reminder that we can have wellness during both peace and sorrow. Despite the terrifying trials of breast cancer, you trusted that all will be well, because of your inclusive, eternal view of spiritual existence, your belief that ultimately God’s goodness will prevail in heaven and on earth.
I heard your daughter Tara read the comforting assurances from your favorite scripture passage, Psalm 139, that God who formed us is with us always; even the dark is not dark to him.
I heard your daughter Julie, who transposed the promises of your inspiration, Julian of Norwich, into song: “Between God and us there is no between” and “All will be well.”
I heard my own voice, praising your commitment to write for Jesus, sharing your private battle with cancer; and my recommitment to Jesus as I follow you. I assured those attending your memorial service that we who love you will be with you again, in the twinkling of an eye. Comforted at last, I turned my weary, reassured body toward sleep.
And then, Jan, I heard you: “I AM JUST A BREATH AWAY.”
You wrote about “thin places” like the Celtic monastery where God’s presence flooded you. I too have closely encountered God. However, there in my bed I discovered a thin place within my own mind and soul, under my own sturdy roof. A veil was lifted.
On June 3, 2020, you and God finally, totally, became One Love. Jesus invited us to breathe in the Holy Spirit (John 20:22). Because God’s spirit of love lives in me, and you live in him, we are together again. Only a breath away. This is eternity.
Love never fails! The ancient promises were true. Between God and us there is no between. All will be well.
—Marilyn Watrous Emanuel
Marilyn Watrous Emanuel is the twin sister of Jan Watrous Woodard, author of Texting Through Cancer.
Read more about Jan Woodard:
I could not have found The Upper Room Moments of Prayer (on Facebook Live) sooner. For it is during these moments of centering spiritual practices, meditating on the words of scripture, praying with and for the world, that I find moments of transcendence, hear whispers of peace and hope, see glimpses of truth and justice, behold visions of love and beauty amid all the stark realities that are around me.”