My wonderful sister, Lynn Pannill, was born 70 years ago on July 13, 1948. There are many untimely deaths, and she suffered hers in 2002, leaving her two brothers bereft. It is only now that I am able to write about her.
Lynn, like the rest of us, was a late bloomer. She grew up in Midland and its excellent public schools (there was an oil boom in the 1950s much like today’s, which brought thousands to the city).
She finished high school in 1966. Then she went off to Southern Methodist University. After a couple of years, she dropped out. Then she made her way to Austin and the University of Texas.
There she connected with two cousins, Torrey Gwin and Pannill Camp. She and Torrey lived together for a while, and she befriended Pannill.
Lynn had been a sweet blonde child. In adulthood, she was the true offspring of our mother – Republican, fierce, outspoken, well read, and tireless.
She was majoring in Latin at the University of Texas, and was becoming something of a perpetual student. Either parental pressure or boredom caused her to find a job while in school. She went to work for the University Co-Op, the main student store on Guadalupe Street in Austin. She managed the basement area that sold university knick-knacks and remembrances.
Then she had a brilliant idea: the Co-Op should produce a catalog and distribute it to the thousands of Texas ex-students. Management turned her down. The catalog boom came within a few years.
A year or so later, in the early 1970s, she tired of school and moved to Houston, where she found a job with Lord & Taylor. She became a top salesman by telling the customers the truth about what the dress looked like on them. “Honey, that doesn’t look good on you,” was her line.
After a year or two, she moved to Joske’s, which had a store across from the Houston Galleria. She became a shoe buyer, making trips to New York for the shows. She rose rapidly into the executive ranks, finally becoming in her thirties a divisional merchandise manager – the equivalent of vice president.
Then she was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Disease, a form of lymphoma. I was in the midst of family upheaval and not of much help. A noted cancer physician told me the disease was “the best of the worst,” and I assumed she would recover. After all, she was young. She took leave from Joske’s.
When she returned after treatment, Dillard’s of Arkansas had taken over Joske’s. But the new owners made her a store manager. She took over.
One of her best friends was another store manager who had been diagnosed with AIDS. He left and died a lingering, painful death. Lynn began to volunteer with AIDS charities in honor of him.
Then Dillards ordered her to fire members of her staff, including her assistant, who she thought was doing a fine job. She argued with the decision and finally resigned herself.
Now Lynn was a retail executive with nowhere to go. She worked for my brother and then for me as a paralegal in our respective law offices. She knew how to make an organization hum.
We grew close in this time, walking to a weekly lunch at Treebeard’s in Christ Church Cathedral and resolving office problems. I discovered she really was a fine executive.
But she had never gotten her degree. In her forties she went back to college on line at the University of Phoenix. When graduation came, she invited me to attend the ceremony with her in San Francisco.
She decided to start a housecleaning business. The slogan was “Because you have better things to do.”
Our parents were failing, and she managed their care and finances. We moved them to Houston.
In the meantime, she attempted and finished a master’s degree in management from the University of Phoenix.
An AIDS charity, the People With AIDS Coalition, had asked her to join the board. Then the organization made her executive director.
She increased the funding and the budget from less than a hundred thousand dollars to a million and a half. She became a member of the Ryan White Council, which oversaw charities such as these for Harris County.
But she was growing sick again. She tried and tried but could not quit smoking. She had a series of life-threatening events – heart, spleen, and lungs. Her cell counts dropped so low she could hardly walk. I knew she would recover though. She bristled with life.
We had joined forces to take my father to Trinity Episcopal Church, a lovely midtown church in Houston. The church soon made Lynn the co-chairman of its fund-raising campaign. I became a worker. She and her colleague raised the money.
In 2000, our father died at 84. Shortly after, she experienced major heart problems in a routine shoulder operation.
She continued to work with the church. I gave her a new Burberry raincoat, which she proudly wore at all services. She opened a consulting firm for non-profits.
But by the spring of 2002, she was dangerously ill. One lung had become filled with blood, and she was continuing to bleed. She went into St. Luke’s Hospital for two weeks, but then checked herself out for a meeting of the Ryan White Council. A few days later she called for me to pick her up. She was in a wheelchair with a blinding headache.
Transfusions kept her alive another week or ten days in intensive care, where I visited daily. The physicians recommended removing the affected lung, still not knowing what was causing her bleeding. Somehow, I believed she would survive.
My brother and I agreed to the surgery with her. The morning she went in, I kissed her forehead and told her I loved her. She was cheerful, as always. She said to me, “See you later, alligator” – a song from our childhood. Those were her last words.
That night a physician called to say St. Luke’s had diagnosed her disease. It was a blood disease so rare the hospital had never seen a case. The hospital came up with a promising treatment plan.
At 10 p.m., the same doctor called me to come immediately to the hospital. Lynn had experienced a Code Blue – meaning her heart had stopped. She said there had been an earlier one, and no one survived two of them.
My brother and I waited in the hospital while she died. We were not allowed in intensive care while the staff worked.
I had never imagined this outcome. We found a priest and read the last rites of the Elizabethan prayer book over her. Then my daughter Lizzie and I waited, grief struck, to accompany her body to the undertakers.
That was the lowest point of life for me – May 10, 2002. Her Burberry raincoat still hangs in my closet.