I received a phone call last month from a local pastor looking for a photographer for a 25th wedding anniversary and renewal of vows service. I would soon learn that this wasn’t the typical type of celebration.
The wife, Marcia, was in the very end stages of her struggle with ovarian cancer. The event in her backyard would also be serving as her goodbye party with her closest friends.
I have been working as a cancer advocate and cancer volunteer for the past five years. I told him I would be honored to be their photographer.
I showed up early to Marcia’s party to meet her and her husband, Michael. We discussed the reality of Marcia’s condition: She wouldn’t be moving from her chair on the patio. Instead, all of the day’s events would be rotating around her. I created space to take photos from her right side.
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The party guests then started showing up. For the next two hours, 120 friends and family members lined up to have their last few face-to-face moments with Marcia.
Amazingly, even in the gravity of the situation, I observed more laughter than tears, more appreciation than regret and more peace than fear. Marcia comforted her guests with reassuring hugs, kisses and affectionate hand holding. This was her day.
It really was a party. The food was delicious and plentiful. The wine and champagne flowed. There was cheesecake and homemade ice cream. There was live music and children playing in the grass.
Pastor Dave Abels had just the right approach to the renewal of vows service. Instead of focusing on the past or projecting into the future, he kept his short message about the present, which is all that Marcia had left.
After two hours, Marcia’s energy was spent. Her caregivers gently lifted her from her patio perch to a wheelchair and pushed her through an adoring crowd that was standing and clapping for her.
The next week, Pastor Abels visited with Marcia. At that point, she was unable to get out of her bed at all.
“She really did give the remaining bit of strength she had at her party,” he says. “We had been discussing the value of having the gathering once she decided to stop her cancer treatments and return home on hospice. At first she told me, ‘Why would I want my friends to have a party for me without me there?’ But when it came closer to the event, she had gotten very sick and was having second thoughts. She decided to press on and woke up the day of the celebration alert and ready. She loved the party and stayed with everyone as long as she could. When I showed her the photos a few days later, she just kept saying, ‘This is perfect! This is perfect!’ There was a peace on her and a restfulness in her soul for having got to say goodbye face-to-face with so many people. With that finished, she faded quickly.”
Marcia Jayne Panattoni passed on Sept. 8, 2016, after living 57 full years of life. She left behind her husband, Michael Lindstrom; her sons, Kyle and Alex; and a multitude of loving friends.
Pastor Abels officiated the funeral service on Sept. 17, and he spoke of the loss of Marcia and her legacy and gracefully allowed others to stand and share about Marcia’s life. Some of her friends commented about the party Marcia had thrown just a few weeks before —where many felt that they had said their real goodbyes.
What Marcia showed so many of us is how meaningful a party can be before someone passes. Her celebration of life party allowed her to take control one last time and beat back cancer for an important couple of hours.
The party provided us with a richer and sweeter goodbye than what we could ever muster on our own when she was gone.
Read Marcia Panattoni’s obituary online at IdahoStatesman.com.
Chad Estes is a Boise photographer and writer whose project, “The Reveal Mission,” showcases stories of breast cancer survivors and fighters.