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1949-2010 Elizabeth Edwards

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Two months ago Elizabeth Edwards was laboring to climb the stairs of the old colonial house she had recently bought in Chapel Hill, N.C., for herself and her youngest two children. Separated from husband John since January, she looked forward to making a fresh start in this new home come springtime. She was optimistic as she offered a tour peppered with her plans for the future: There, overlooking the bird feeder, was where she would put her desk. There, she would build a bedroom for 10-year-old Jack, who played with friends in the tree house out back. But even as she daydreamed on this sunny October day, she gasped for breath with tears in her eyes and cursed her chemo. “Damn these drugs,” she cried. “Damn cancer.”

She would never move into that house. Instead, just days after learning that the breast cancer she had been fighting off and on since 2004 had spread to her liver and that treatment was no longer productive, she died at 61 on Dec. 7 in the home she had built with John, surrounded by friends and family, including her children and estranged husband. “She’s at peace,” said a close friend who saw her the day she died. “After so much pain the past several years, it was an easy passing, and she deserved that.” Edwards will be laid to rest beside her oldest son, Wade, in the Oakwood Cemetery in Raleigh, N.C., after a funeral service in the same church where she wept over Wade’s 1996 death at age 16 from a car accident.

In the end it was a peaceful surrender for a woman who rarely conceded defeat. Determined, loyal and blazingly intelligent, Edwards weathered unimaginable tragedy and scandal with her signature steely grace in her lifelong roles as a lawyer, political wife, author and activist who inspired millions throughout her time on the public stage. But above all, she was a fiercely devoted mom of four: son Wade, daughters Cate, 28, and Emma Claire, 12, and her youngest, Jack. To her children she was the ultimate wonder woman. “This year, despite all that was going on in her world, she traveled to Washington to help me renovate and decorate, explaining the kitchen should be one of the best rooms in the house-because that’s where people gather,” Cate wrote in PEOPLE in July. “There are other things she taught me without words. Like never giving up on your passions or purpose no matter what obstacles-like grief or disease-get in your way. In short, she taught me the meaning of ‘grace.'”

It was a lesson Elizabeth herself would learn throughout the many challenges of her life. Chief among them was the wrenching end of her 32-year marriage to former North Carolina senator John, 57, whose 2008 cheating scandal came in the midst of Elizabeth’s grueling six-year cancer battle. Showing her signature resilience-the title of her 2009 memoir-she carried on after making the tortured decision to separate from John. Looking to begin a new chapter, she went on Facebook as a way of reconnecting both with old friends and the woman she was before she became Mrs. Edwards. She took a painting class. She opened a furniture store. And she continued to speak out on health care reform. Just before Halloween, she celebrated a cancer-free brain scan and was newly hopeful. “Now that I feel very much alive,” she told a PEOPLE reporter, “I have a lot to get done.”

In her last days, John-who lives nearby-was with their children, all of them still very much a family. “He tried to do right at the end,” a friend says of John, who will be assuming full care of the kids. Despite their failed marriage, the couple remained in close touch, and Elizabeth wrote in Resilience that she was able to remember him as the man she married, even when others saw only the disgraced politician. “When I see John … I see all the memories-the look on his face when he held our children as newborns,” she wrote. “When I closed the door on the John of today, I also had to say goodbye to that sweet man I have loved for so long.”

Still, Elizabeth’s wounds from his betrayal ran deep. Even as she was determined not to darken her children’s view of their father, she struggled to forgive him. “He wants to take me for my tests, and I know he’ll fight for the best possible care for me,” she said recently, “but I don’t know that I want to give him that kind of redemption yet.”

The daughter of a military officer and his wife, she met John Edwards, the handsome, magnetic son of a millworker, at the University of North Carolina School of Law. Together they formed a tight partnership that would bring them nearly to the door of the White House with John’s 2007 run before the scandal derailed both his political career and their marriage. And the turmoil has yet to end: A federal grand jury has recently stepped up its investigation into whether John used presidential campaign funds to cover up his affair.

But in the end, Elizabeth kept her focus where she always did: on her children. In the afterword to Resilience, she expressed her most fervent wish, stating simply, “Eight years. That’s what I ask for.” Time enough to see Jack graduate high school and Emma choose a college major. From Cate, a D.C. anti-discrimination lawyer, Edwards had hoped for a grandbaby: “I want to walk them to the door of the next part of their lives.”

Surrounded by her loved ones, including Jay and Nancy Anania, her brother and sister, along with close friends, she spent her final days looking at old photos, telling stories and sharing as many laughs as tears. Beside them, amid the bedside-table clutter of reading glasses and pill bottles, a small photograph of Wade served as reminder of one hope to which Edwards had clung: that death might bring the chance to hold her firstborn son again. “The warm house she had created was filled with family,” said a friend, “just as she wanted.”