August 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: Charlotte Sun-Herald: Mary Panikian dies. Nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English

Peace Corps Online: Directory: Nigeria: Peace Corps Nigeria : The Peace Corps in Nigeria: August 1, 2004: Headlines: COS - Nigeria: Charlotte Sun-Herald: Mary Panikian dies. Nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English

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Mary Panikian dies. Nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English

Mary Panikian dies. Nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English

Mary Panikian dies. Nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English

End of the journey

Family and faith ease woman's passing

Editor's note: Diagnosed with brain cancer last year, 69-year-old Mary Panikian agreed to share the story of her final journey with our readers. Mary's fascinating life has taken her around the world and back to Charlotte County. Below is the third and final installment of Mary's story.

Megan Elizabeth got to spend almost two months with her grandmother. Though neither were really aware of each other toward the end.

Mary Panikian had been waiting for her granddaughter's arrival. Though she could hardly walk, Mary went to Dillard's with her oldest daughter to buy gifts for Megan. A few days later, Mary's weakened legs and failing health brought her to the Hospice House in Port Charlotte.

For a while, it was doubtful the two would meet.

But Mary hung on, determined to see Megan.

On May 26, the healthy little girl arrived with the same middle name as her grandmother.

Mary was so excited to meet Megan that she put on her lipstick and waited for her ride at 9 the night before -- 12 hours early, another sign of Mary's losing battle with brain cancer.

The next morning, Mary reapplied her lipstick.

And she met Megan.

The holiday

Mary, 69, was diagnosed with brain cancer in May 2003, but there were signs of problems long before then.

In 2001, Mary set out for a wedding in Boston, but never made it. Instead, she ended up in Philadelphia and did not call anyone for two days.

That Christmas, Mary wasn't walking very fast. During a routine colonoscopy, Mary didn't come out of the anesthesia right away. By Easter 2003, one of her daughters had to cut her meat.

The diagnosis explained Mary's unusual fatigue, uncharacteristic confusion and lagging spirit. Mary moved slower as Christmas came and went. By this Easter, it was obvious she didn't have long.

Mary was still living at her daughter Jeannine Polk's Charlotte Harbor home, where the die-hard Democrat read anti-Bush books, watched television and observed the tides bring diving birds into the Peace River.

There, overlooking the river, relatives gathered for a final large-family holiday. Mary's brother John traveled from North Carolina to see her. All the grandkids were there.

As John led the family in grace, the lumps in everyone's throats gave way to tears.

"I don't know that there will be another holiday that we can be together," said Mary's oldest daughter, Marya Morrison.

Doctors had removed two of the three tumors from Mary's brain. The third tumor was near her brain stem and inoperable.

By Easter, the cancer had spread from Mary's brain and began attacking other organs.

Mary, though, didn't know.

She stopped chemotherapy. The side effects were just too hard on her ailing body.

A commode was moved next to her bed -- but that became too far away as well. She could barely get in and out of chairs. Stairs were no longer an option.

The Easter dinner was held outside, on the patio, on the same floor as Mary's room in Jeannine's home. Mary's feet and legs were swollen and discolored, propped up on pillows that left impressions in her stretched skin.

"She's far worse than I expected," Marya said. "She can't go into Jeannine's upstairs anymore."

A few weeks later, she wouldn't need to.

By Mother's Day, Mary moved into the Port Charlotte Hospice House. Jeannine simply could not care for her mother anymore. Mary needed 24-hour care.

The waiting

Mary spent 20 days waiting at the Hospice House for a special package.

There, former coworkers, friends and relatives visited. There, nurses and volunteers adored Mary and listened to her stories about graduating from the University of Michigan with a journalism degree, joining the U.S. Peace Corps in 1962, spending two years in Nigeria teaching English and later educating dangerous criminals at the Charlotte Correctional Institution.

"We feel pretty special to have her around," said home health aide Peggy Walts. "She's a keeper."

Photographs of loved ones, and her late husband John, decorated a bulletin board above Mary's dresser. On the bureau, Mary had more pictures displayed -- mostly beloved grandkids. They came to visit Grandma at the Hospice House as well, which explained the SpongeBob SquarePants beach ball in a corner of Mary's room.

Within reach on her nightstand were more books slamming Bush -- whom Mary hoped to see defeated in the November election.

"Anyone but Bush," Mary said back in January.

She liked living at the Hospice House, where meals were catered to her needs, dinners were brought in from donating restaurants and everyone treated her well.

"I think it's very comfortable here," Mary said in June. "You can eat when you want here. There's always something to eat, and it's free, so that's nice."

Mary particularly liked the nights when a local Thai restaurant delivered dinner.

Of all the health problems that afflicted Mary, none seemed to affect her appetite.

"I like almost all kinds of food," Mary said.

Each meal, each day brought her closer to seeing Megan.

The arrival

Miguelle had a Caesarean section May 26.

Megan Elizabeth weighed 7 pounds, 14 ounces. She was 20 inches long, with a patch of fine brown hair on her head.

The next morning, Marya picked up her mother for the 40-minute journey from the Hospice House to the maternity ward in Cape Coral Hospital.

Mary struggled during the long car ride. She had a difficult time getting out of Marya's car.

But she had waited long enough.

As the elevators opened up to the maternity ward, Mary was all smiles.

As she entered Miguelle's room, she couldn't take her eyes off the little pink blanket.

Finally, Megan.

"Say 'Hi' to Grandma," Miguelle said to Megan.

Miguelle's husband, John, placed Megan in Mary's arms.

"She's beautiful," Mary said. "Definitely worth waiting for."

Mary, Miguelle, Marya and John talked about how Megan looked like Miguelle's son, Steffen.

Mary's eyes occasionally glanced up at Miguelle, but then she looked right back down at the little girl she'd been waiting months to meet.

"She's cute, isn't she?" Miguelle said to her mom.

Mary nodded.

"And I'm not even prejudiced," Mary said, drawing laughter from everyone in the room.

"I don't know about that," Miguelle said.

For a moment that day, there was no mention of cancer, of Mary's swollen legs or bruised arms.

"I'm so glad she got to come," Miguelle said.

"That's what it's really about - kids and family," Marya said.

Marya has been through this before. Their father died days after Marya gave birth to her daughter, Reagan.

"I just feel like it's the same scenario. You give a life and God takes one away," Marya said about a month before Megan's arrival.

But as Mary sat in the hospital room, holding Megan, the focus was on God's gift to Mary and her family.

"What do you think? We did good, huh?" Miguelle said to her mom.

"God is good," Mary said.

The end

For the next few months, Miguelle brought Megan to the Hospice House for more visits with Mary.

"I think the baby has slept every time she came here," Mary said.

Mary spent most of her time in bed. Though there was a new Bush book on her nightstand, she rarely picked up the heavy text to read.

"I haven't made too much progress in that book," she said.

She ate her meals in bed, needing help to pull herself upright. But she still smiled when visitors stopped by -- especially when it was Megan.

"She's in love with her baby," Marya said.

Every so often, Mary would tell Marya: "I think I need to go to Miguelle's tomorrow. I need to know if everything's OK."

But Mary didn't make any more trips outside the Hospice House.

"She's disconnected totally (from) her feet," Marya said. "She doesn't even know where they are."

By the end of June, Mary knew she was almost "home" -- something the faithful Protestant hadn't feared. Back in January, Mary and Jeannine began reading Rick Warren's "The Purpose Driven Life." Mary believed her purpose in life was helping others.

Though Mary was devastated when she was first diagnosed with brain cancer, she began to accept her illness. Though she was unhappy when her hair began thinning and falling out, she put on a straw hat and went out in public. Though she struggled to accept help from others, she eventually gave in, recognizing her own weaknesses.

She began making preparations. She planned a happy memorial service. She made peace with dying. She looked forward to seeing her husband on heaven's streets of gold. And she prayed, just as she always has.

"I guess I'll live a few more days," Mary said one day in late June. "I really have not been (scared), and I don't want to be either."

Then, Mary stopped recognizing some people she knew. But she still knew her daughters and Megan.

On July 17, Mary's daughters and loved ones stood by her side.

"It was really so sad," Marya said. "She struggled."

Mary wasn't breathing well, but she refused to stop taking breaths despite her daughters' encouragement to let go.

"She was trying to hang on and we weren't sure why," Marya said. "She would open her eyes and she knew we were there."

The daughters told her: "It's time to go. Go home. We'll be fine."

Jeannine leaned over, kissed her mother and said, "I love you."

Mary spoke.

"I love you."

Mary then took her final breath.

"At the end when she couldn't talk well, she could always say that," Marya said.

They prayed around their mom and left.

"She's our little angel now," Miguelle said.

Though the daughters know their mother is no longer suffering, they'll struggle to fill the void left by the woman who cared for them the most, the mother who nurtured them into mothers, the grandmother who held on to see her last grandchild, and the woman whose final words were the three every person wants to hear at the end.

The service

Mary wanted it to be a happy memorial service.

It was, though there were still tears.

There was that song about heaven's streets of gold, the same one that was played at her husband's funeral.

There was a slide show of photos from her life, including the years spent in Nigeria.

And "Amazing Grace," of course.

That's what Mary wanted.

"The No. 1 thing Mary said: 'I want it to be a happy time. I want it to be a celebration,'" said the Rev. Tom Moore during Mary's service on Monday.

About 100 people attended Mary's memorial service at the First United Methodist Church in Punta Gorda.

Mary was ready to walk heaven's streets of gold, Moore said, especially since she lived long enough to meet her goal: her eighth grandchild.

"When I went to visit Mary at Hospice, she could hardly wait to show me the pictures," Moore told those at the service. "She was so grateful God answered that prayer. She was so elated to have all eight of (her grandkids). She loved them from the bottom of her heart."

The Rev. John Bryant opened up the service saying, "God is good," the same words uttered as Mary looked at her new grandchild in May.

Mary's daughters, Jeannine and Marya, spoke at the service, offering glimpses into her life that only daughters can convey.

Mary loved watching Big Ten basketball and football, especially the University of Michigan, her alma mater. She took her daughters to church on Sundays at the same house of worship. She got her daughters involved in Pop Warner cheerleading. She took them to the pool at the Punta Gorda Isles Yacht Club, where they learned to swim.

After Mary got comfortable enough driving across the Peace River, she drove them to Englewood Beach. She constantly read books and passed that passion for words on to her children. She sewed dresses, cheerleading uniforms and draperies. Cooking, however, wasn't her forté. She once accepted a date in college from a man with no arms because saying "no" due to his handicap wasn't an excuse. She saw the good in the bad criminals at the prison.

"Did we mention she's a registered Democrat?" Marya joked. "Because she would want everyone to know that."

Miguelle's husband, John, read a letter that was written by those at the Nigerian school when Mary headed back to America after her service in the Peace Corps.

"We are greatly indebted to you," the letter stated.

They said Mary's presence at the school inspired girls and proved the point that "what a man can do, a woman can do also," John read.

The slide show brought tears to everyone's eyes as Joelle Beverly sang, "If You Could See Me Now," a song about heaven's streets of gold.

The pictures showed a youthful, vibrant Mary; a caring, patient mother; a doting, loving wife; and a proud, open-armed grandmother. Toward the end, the photographs also displayed the loss of hair, bloated body, swollen feet and aging face -- the physical effects of battling cancer. Yet, still, she smiled, surrounded by her loved ones.

"She was absolutely at peace with her Father in heaven," Moore said.

The final photos showed Mary's most precious gifts: her grandchildren.

Written beneath were the words, "We'll miss you Gramma."

You can e-mail Christy Arnold at


Staff Writer

When this story was prepared, this was the front page of PCOL magazine:

This Month's Issue: August 2004 This Month's Issue: August 2004
Teresa Heinz Kerry celebrates the Peace Corps Volunteer as one of the best faces America has ever projected in a speech to the Democratic Convention. The National Review disagreed and said that Heinz's celebration of the PCV was "truly offensive." What's your opinion and who can come up with the funniest caption for our Current Events Funny?

Exclusive: Director Vasquez speaks out in an op-ed published exclusively on the web by Peace Corps Online saying the Dayton Daily News' portrayal of Peace Corps "doesn't jibe with facts."

In other news, the NPCA makes the case for improving governance and explains the challenges facing the organization, RPCV Bob Shaconis says Peace Corps has been a "sacred cow", RPCV Shaun McNally picks up support for his Aug 10 primary and has a plan to win in Connecticut, and the movie "Open Water" based on the negligent deaths of two RPCVs in Australia opens August 6. Op-ed's by RPCVs: Cops of the World is not a good goal and Peace Corps must emphasize community development.

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Story Source: Charlotte Sun-Herald

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