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Barely two years after President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, Mary Panikian volunteered and flew to Nigeria -- a young woman alone in Africa in 1962
Barely two years after President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, Mary Panikian volunteered and flew to Nigeria -- a young woman alone in Africa in 1962
Dying with Dignity
It will be a happy memorial service.
Mary Panikian wants the song that was played at her husband's funeral, something about heaven's streets of gold.
She'd like 1 Corinthians 13.
A slide show from when she taught in Nigeria.
And "Amazing Grace," of course.
"Mainly, I'd like for people to enjoy the service," Mary says.
Mary is dying of brain cancer. There's an inoperable tumor sitting near her brainstem. There were also two tumors in her frontal lobe -- but those were removed, as was a third of Mary's brain in that area.
"I feel at peace with whenever I die," Mary says. "It could be soon or it could be a fair amount of time."
She's praying for a few more months.
"Hopefully I will be able to live until the new baby is born -- that I want to see because that will probably be my last grandchild," says the 69-year-old Charlotte County resident.
Her eighth grandchild is due in May, the one-year anniversary of Mary's diagnosis and brain surgery.
But her daughters knew something was wrong years ago.
In August 2001, Mary boarded a plane bound for a cousin's wedding in Boston. The flight, however, was diverted to Philadelphia -- which normally wouldn't affect the woman who spent two years on her own in Africa.
But it did.
"For two days, we didn't hear from her," her daughter Marya says. "We had Boston (police department) looking for her. She never made it to the wedding. She didn't have the wherewithal. She told me, 'I don't know what's wrong with me.'"
Apparently Mary met a minister along the way. He told her that he knew the church where her cousin was getting married and drove her there. By the time they arrived, the wedding was over.
The minister took Mary back to his house. He and his wife cooked Mary a meal. Then, he took her to the nearest train station, where Mary began a journey to Canada.
She was going to see a relative in Canada, though her sister-in-law was unaware of Mary's trip.
"I knew of mom's plans and called her throughout the ordeal to tell her to have Mom call us as soon as she gets there," daughter Jeannine recalls. "Somehow, my mother called my aunt, who in turn told her we were worried about her and knew she didn't make it to the wedding. Mom called us at that point."
After that, Mary's daughters began noticing other problems.
"She wasn't on the ball, totally," Marya recalls. "Everything was kind of slow."
Mary couldn't walk very fast that Christmas.
When she went to the doctor for a colonoscopy, she didn't immediately come out of anesthesia.
And at Easter dinner last year, it was becoming more clear that Mary just wasn't herself.
"Jeannine had to cut her meat," Marya recalls.
A doctor diagnosed Mary as having an inner-ear problem.
But that didn't explain Mary's unusual fatigue or lagging spirit.
"By Tuesday, she couldn't get up for meals," Jeannine says. "She had nothing to eat or drink all day and Mom said, 'Jeannine, I don't need much.'"
Another trip to a doctor verified the daughters' concerns.
The doctor asked Mary what month it was. "May," she replied.
"I don't think it was April yet," Jeannine says. "We'd just had Easter. I broke down crying. I knew she had a brain tumor."
Doctors found three.
And in May 2003, Mary had surgery, or, as Jeannine puts it, "she would have died."
Though a portion of her brain was removed, Mary's spirit returned.
"It was like she had been asleep for five years," Jeannine says.
"Her sweet bubbly self came out," Marya adds.
But then came the radiation and chemo -- and that other tumor near the brainstem which couldn't be removed.
Barely two years after President John F. Kennedy created the Peace Corps, Mary volunteered and flew to Nigeria -- a young woman alone in Africa in 1962.
Mary met her husband, John, a Lebanese Catholic, in a Nigerian nightclub. She was 29, he was 25.
She giggles, as she remembers, "I married a younger man."
For John, it was love at first sight.
"I remember our first date. He would be kissing my hand a lot. He was kind of like a puppy dog at first," Mary says. "I was not a cold person, but I gave him a hard time and I think he liked that ... Plus, I was different and I was an American."
If John was a puppy dog, Mary was more a cat.
"It took me probably a year and a half before I thought it would be anything serious," she says. "I wasn't into it that much. I wasn't that sure about John either, being that he was from a different culture."
They married July 24, 1964, in Lebanon.
"It was a very warm day," Mary recalls. "I had this very pretty hair-do and it was starting to stream down."
Inside a white, weathered album, Mary looks at wedding photographs -- including the disapproving scowl on her mother-in-law's face.
"This was his mom that I've never gotten along with," Mary says, pointing to the photo. "She was staunchly against (her son marrying an American)."
John joined Mary in America, though it took a while to get him into the country and necessitated the help of former President Gerald Ford, then a congressman from Mary's home state of Michigan.
"John was a rebel," Mary says. "He was the rebel, so he went against his family. When they said 'Yes,' he said, 'No.'"
They moved to Punta Gorda in 1973. John had gotten a job with a jukebox company on the east coast, but settled here, preferring to raise a family in a smaller town.
Mary and John had three daughters: Marya Jean, a variation of Mary and John; Jeannine, because John had a sister with that name and Mary liked it as well; and Miguelle, since it's similar to Michael and "there's lots of those in the family," Mary says.
While John worked seven days a week in commercial refrigeration. Mary raised the girls, working as a journalist and in other jobs.
A University of Michigan graduate, Mary also taught at the Charlotte Correctional Institution for six years, educating some of the state's most dangerous prisoners. That didn't bother Mary much since they didn't like "old ladies" who all wore pants, she once told her daughter Marya.
In 1996, John died from a heart attack at the age of 58.
Mary says she handled her husband's death well, but there are still reminders of the man she met in Nigeria. Though she remembers precise details -- such as stopping to get videos on her way home the day John died -- she has difficulty expressing her thoughts about missing John.
"Some of my brain is not working too well to remember ..." Mary says.
She does recall being at Fishermen's Village shortly after his death and hearing the live music and seeing people dancing.
"That really kind of hit me," she remembers. "I don't know exactly how to describe that though."
Most days, Mary sits in a brown leather chair with a book or two on her lap, in her hand or on the floor nearby. She reads like most people watch TV, often and anything such as Michael Moore's "Dude, Where's My Country" or Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life."
On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, 76-year-old Marlysse "Skip" Silcox keeps Mary company while Jeannine runs errands or spends time with her husband. The two talk books or politics.
"We solve all the problems of the world," Skip says.
But Mary rarely leaves that open-armed leather chair.
She moved into Jeannine's home on the Peace River last fall. Since the surgery, she has had trouble walking.
"I shuffle," she told a fellow brain cancer survivor at the American Cancer Society's dinner Jan. 22. "I did land on my knees the other day coming down the stairs."
There are other physical changes, perhaps a result of the surgery, chemotherapy, radiation or other medication.
She's often chilly now, and a sweater covers her shoulders or a blanket warms her legs.
Her foot bones hide beneath swollen flesh.
Her hair, thinned, grayed and closely cropped, is trying to grow back beneath the straw hat she wears outside the house.
"I tried to color it one day," she said of her hair. "But it didn't do anything. It's still gray."
At an American Cancer Society dinner, Mary wears her straw hat, joining more than 250 other cancer survivors and caregivers. After sitting at a table, talking to fellow survivors, Mary scans the room.
"Not a lot of hats," she notes, right after taking hers off.
Prior to dinner, served by high school and elementary school students, 250 heads bow in prayer.
She picks up one of the decorated plastic baggies on the table, unwraps it, pulls out a Hershey's Kiss and pops it in her mouth.
Her daughter Jeannine, whose head is down, hears the crinkling sounds of candy wrappers, looks at her mother and gently nudges her.
"I'm 69. I'm a cancer survivor. Don't tell me what to do," Mary admonishes her.
Some days, however, Mary isn't as feisty or spry. In fact, she's often subdued.
"I've had a slow start," she says one day in January. "I just got dressed a little while ago."
Skip also notices the tougher days.
"We were talking and she just went night-night," Skip says. "She's on so much medication. She doesn't perk up. She's alert, but she's quiet."
And that was a slow day, filled simply with reading, sitting and napping.
It's the trips to the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa that bring the longest, most challenging days for Mary.
Jeannine wants to begin the 104-mile journey by 8:30 a.m., since Interstate 75 had clogged due to a tanker truck explosion days earlier.
But shortly after the planned departure time, no one's in the car. Mary stands in Jeannine's kitchen, shoeless, eating a banana. She's already taken the peel off.
Mary sits down on the couch, still holding the banana, allowing her daughter to put on her shoes.
Then, Jeannine helps her mother down the stairs slowly. Mary quickly finishes the banana, freeing her hands so she can hold onto the railings. Jeannine stands in front of Mary, as she makes her way down, carefully putting one foot down while her banana-free hands hold the railing for support, or balance, or security. For Mary, even life's simplest tasks are now a struggle.
Finding an available route onto the interstate causes some trouble, but once on the highway, it's a quick ride to Tampa and they're actually early for Mary's first appointment.
The Moffitt Cancer Center looks like a university. For some, it's just that -- a learning environment for tomorrow's leading oncologists. Despite the sprawling campus full of modern buildings, it's an obvious hospital setting catered to patients from the moment one drives up to the door.
Young men greet the vehicles and valet-park the cars for free, sparing patients from searching for parking in a large city and, perhaps more importantly, reducing the number of steps for the tired, ailing bodies that walk into the cancer center.
Jeannine immediately grabs a wheelchair for her mother, though Mary at first protests. But the campus is large and Mary's appointments are scattered, farther than her swollen feet will carry her. As Jeannine pushes her mother through the halls of Moffitt's newest building, quick glances into passing rooms reaffirm the reality: too many and too young, wearing hospital identification bracelets, hooked up to IVs or waiting in areas marked "research."
As Mary waits for her first appointment -- an MRI to see if her tumor has grown, stayed the same or shrunk, the last of which is unlikely -- she opens her purse, pulls out a small tube of lipstick and paints her lips. Minutes later, she's behind thick white walls for the MRI.
After blood tests and lunch, Mary sees neuro-oncologist Dr. Susan Snodgrass and about three or four young doctors-in-training who cram into the small examination room to look at the digital images of Mary's brain on a computer screen.
The MRI indicates the tumor has grown slightly -- 14.06 mm to 14.55 mm -- though even the tiniest growth can be dangerous for a brain tumor.
Snodgrass mentions there are some research that are available, since Mary has already endured radiation and chemotherapy, but suggests they discuss the matter as a family.
After looking at the growing tumor, Snodgrass runs through a few physical tests to check Mary's fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination.
Snodgrass asks Mary to circle her arms around one another, point to her nose and tap her thumb and forefinger together. The doctor comments that Mary is favoring her left side.
Snodgrass then checks Mary's thought process ability by asking her to spell the word "world" backwards, as if Mary's life isn't already just that. But Mary does it, and quickly.
After the doctor leaves the room, Mary confesses about her quick spelling.
"She's been giving me the same word," Mary says. "So that's kind of cheating, I think."
Shortly thereafter, Jeannine returns to her Charlotte Harbor home by herself. Marya, who has arrived at Moffit earlier in the day, takes Mary to her Clearwater home. They all have some thinking to do.
"Cancer is horrible," Marya says.
Running in the family
Mary grew up in a Michigan home as one of eight kids.
Thelma, Mary, Shirley, Charles, Sondra, Caroline, Johnny and Donna.
"Because there were eight children in our family, we did a lot together," Mary says. "I spent quite a bit of time with my mother."
Mary still remembers the taste of her mom's fried chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy.
"On the whole, I had a happy childhood," Mary says.
Mary, second oldest, has lost quite a few siblings along the way.
Three died from cancer.
For Thelma, it was breast cancer at the age of 58.
For Charles, it was lung cancer at 61.
And for Caroline, it was lung cancer first, then brain cancer in her early 50s.
"I have quite a few relatives that have died of cancer," Mary says.
She's now the fourth of eight siblings afflicted with cancer.
But she also lost another sister at a young age.
Growing up, Mary was closest to Shirley, who was only a year and a half younger.
Like Mary, she was a traveler and moved to Thailand with her husband in the late 1960s.
"She thought (Thailand) was interesting," Mary recalls. "I guess the buildings there were very intricate."
But the electrical appliances were not.
Shirley was electrocuted by an ill-functioning fan on a Sunday, Mary recalls.
"Her foot touched it and that was it," Mary says.
Shirley had a 13-month-old child named Tonya.
On the back of a photo, taken in October 1970 of Mary's family, Mary wrote: "Shirley died in Thailand from the electrical shock from a fan that had a short circuit ... She was caught and died there. Dick (Shirley's husband) called me and said he had bad news. We were all very upset. We had never seen Tonya, so she was someone to love from Shirley and something to look forward to."
Mary says she wants to see Shirley, and the three who also suffered from cancer, when she gets to heaven.
Beginning the end
Mary knows she's doesn't have much time.
She's enduring more chemotherapy. Doctors have increased her medication to reduce the swelling in her feet and ankles. Twice a day, Jeannine gives her two injections of blood thinner to help a blood clot that's formed behind her right knee. And the pale, smooth skin that once captivated her husband now has bruises on parts of her arms and sores from too many needles.
For the last few weeks, she has been making arrangements with the help of her daughters and the Rev. Tom Moore from Harbor Breeze Baptist Church.
Mary wants to be cremated like her husband. Their ashes will rest together at Charlotte Memorial Funeral Home & Gardens in Punta Gorda.
"It's real old, so it's rather nice," Mary says of the memorial garden.
Unlike many facing death, Mary hasn't gone through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. The diagnosis, surgery and treatment happened so quickly, Mary never grew angry or depressed, she says.
"How can you change it?" Mary says. "You can either have a pretty good attitude or one that's not. And I've never felt that helped to feel negative about things."
Mary has few regrets. She lights up when she recalls her days in Nigeria, living in an experimental house that actually had air conditioning.
"I was very lucky," Mary says. "I was practically the only person there that had an air-conditioned place."
On Mary's dresser, there are reminders of Nigeria, two large wood-carved statues. In a hallway, there's a large, hand-crafted, ornate wood chest. Of all the possessions, "that's what's important to me," she said.
If Mary lights up when talking about Nigeria, she glows when she mentions her daughters or grandchildren.
"I just feel very grateful for my children, my grandchildren and my family, and that God has given us eternal life," Mary says.
Though the hymn "Amazing Grace" often brings tears to people's eyes, Mary wants an uplifting service.
"I'd like it to be a very happy service," Mary says.
She wants the Corinthians passage read because it says, "Love is patient, love is kind ..."
She likes Jeannine's idea of having a slide show of photos that includes pictures from Nigeria, the place where she fell in love with teaching and John.
And Mary would like her daughters to speak at the funeral, but they can keep it short, she says.
"She was the best mommy ever," Miguelle suggests.
The Rev. Moore, from Mary's church, says the service can be however she wants.
"With your permission, what I'd focus on is the celebration ... heaven ... a place with no pain. A place with no such word as cancer. No we haven't lost our mother or our grandmother, we know where she is," Moore says.
"We can't live forever," Mary responds.
"Not on earth," Jeannine replies.
After the service, which Mary wants to be held at the Bayfront Center in Punta Gorda, Jeannine will have a dinner at her house.
"That would be nice for everybody," Mary says. "So, I think that's, you know, acceptable to me. I won't be here, but ... "
"Yes you will," Moore replies. "You're there with her, with her and with your other daughter ... as they look around you're all around them."
Miguelle, the youngest and the one Mary worries about the most, gently rubs her mom's swollen ankle.
"I think that Miguelle seems to be the one that's (having difficulty) and that's bothering me a bit," Mary says. "I don't want her to be sad."
After Mary sees Miguelle's new daughter, she says she'll be ready for heaven.
"I think it will be a marvelous place supposedly with streets of gold," Mary says.
You can e-mail Christy Arnold at email@example.com.
By CHRISTY ARNOLD
© 2004 All rights reserved.