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Loving family had to let go

by Byron Tate | March 28, 2021 at 10:21 a.m.
Kenneth and Debbie Staton look at a recent photograph of Kenneth's parents, Harold and Dean Staton, both of whom died from covid, just days apart. (Pine Bluff Commercial/Byron Tate)

Editor's note: This article is a continuation of a series of stories looking at how the coronavirus pandemic affected life in Pine Bluff over the past year.

Charlotte Munson was 79. She was not in the best of health, suffering from arthritis and heart problems. But she managed. In the prime of her life, her husband died and she was left with three children to raise, and she threw herself into that role. In her spare time, she liked to make bread, and her special treat for her family was her chicken noodle soup with noodles she made herself.

Harold Staton was 87. Raised on a farm near Lonoke, he and his nine siblings worked hard to make a living, many times making money by laboring on other families' farms. After serving in the Army, Harold moved to Little Rock and went to work for a trailer business. Wanting to spread his own wings, he eventually moved to Pine Bluff to open his own truck and trailer company. He took pleasure in his family, but outside of that, the love of what he did for a living is what got him up in the morning.

Dean Staton, Harold's wife, was 83. She had devoted herself to her family, keeping her house neat and her children on the straight and narrow. Once her children started school, she went to work at the truck and trailer business. Her heart was big. Both Statons were active in their church, and anytime the church had a pastor who wasn't from around Pine Bluff, Dean would mother him, opening her home for meals and to share in holidays.

Those were the three surviving parents of Debbie Staton, 58, and her husband Kenneth Staton, 63. And now all three are gone, swept away by covid over the course of 16 days.

Kenneth and Debbie Staton are still stunned by what happened but agreed to sit down and talk about their experience. Occasionally, one's eyes would redden when telling a story, or they would stop talking altogether, waiting for the lump in the throat to subside.

"We've shed our tears," Kenneth said, going on to say that now that the bigger shock has passed, it's the smaller things that catch them off guard.

"There was a woman at church and she and her family were sitting in a pew," he said, straining a little to tell the story. "She had her arm across the shoulders of two of her kids, and she started playing with her son's hair. That's how mom used to do us."

Debbie, a caseworker at Neighbor to Neighbor, said her mother was a kind soul with nary a negative thing to say about anybody. Charlotte had grown up in California and had moved to the Pine Bluff area in 1981. Her parents' arrival, however, was immediately tarnished by sadness.

"That's when we lost our dad," she said. "They got here at noon, and he was dead by midnight."

Her father, Theodore, was in ill health, but he was only 52, and no one had expected him to be taken by heart attack at such an early age.

Charlotte, now the breadwinner, made a living working at Simmons Bank in the accounting department and also in the Jefferson County clerk's office.

"I was 19 but mom still had my two brothers and a sister at home," Debbie said. "We all did what we could to help."

Charlotte's problems started in early December. She was weak and was already in a wheelchair most of the time but was still living at home. On Dec. 4, she fell getting out of bed during the night. She wasn't hurt, and the family, thinking this was a one-time event, didn't intervene.

But the same thing happened the next night, except this time, Charlotte injured her shoulder and had to be taken to Jefferson Regional Medical Center for surgery.

Debbie remembers the surgeon saying that, from his experience, her mother's bones were so weak that he did not think she would live much longer.

Covid had been a part of all their lives for many months by this point, but their ability to keep it at bay was about to change.

Kenneth, who also works at the family's trailer and truck business, had been checking the temperature of everyone that came through the doors. And then he got a surprise.

"I was checking my own and it went off," he said. "I didn't know I was sick. I went right then to be tested."

By then, Debbie had started feeling different. She was tired and had a little cough. She just thought she was worn out from work and going back and forth to the hospital for her mother.

When Kenneth called her to report what was going on with him, she realized what she was experiencing might be more than just being a little rundown. The two went to be tested, and on Dec. 10, both tests were positive. And because Debbie had been around her mother, Charlotte was tested the next day and that test was positive.

Things went downhill quickly after that. On Dec. 15, Charlotte, who was still in the hospital, was sent to a nursing home for rehab on her shoulder. But three days later, on Dec. 18, she became unresponsive.

"They took her to the hospital that day, but she never recovered," Debbie said.

Debbie praised the hospital personnel, saying they did a good job in keeping the family informed about her mother's condition, but after hearing repeatedly how Charlotte's health was deteriorating, the family said "enough was enough" and decided to tell the hospital to take Charlotte off life-support devices and "let her go." When they made that call, however, "they said she'd gone."

After Charlotte died, the hospital allowed Debbie and her sister, Cathy Munson, to go into her hospital room to be with her for a few minutes "to say our goodbyes," even though by this point, Cathy also had covid.

On Dec. 18, the day Debbie's mother died, Kenneth's father was diagnosed with covid. Not surprisingly, Harold Staton was not able to fight off the illness. Kenneth said his father was healthy, but the elder Staton's age was working against him from covid, which has been much harder on older populations than younger people.

"Dad was doing bad," Kenneth said. "We carried them both to the hospital, and I went to grab a wheelchair for him, and he said, 'No, I'm walking.' He's just that independent."

Kenneth's mother was doing better, he said, and was released. As it turned out, that would only be a short reprieve for her.

Kenneth said that when his father was taken into the hospital, Harold became loud because the staff members wouldn't give him his medications, which were for minor ailments, such as arthritis. "We told him to calm down and that Debbie was in the hospital saying goodbye to her mom and she didn't need to hear him pitching a fit," Kenneth said.

Harold quieted down, but his life kept slipping away. He was never put on a ventilator, but he did have to have oxygen through a mask, and even with that, his blood-oxygen level kept dropping. Kenneth said his father was told that there was a good chance that the damage to his lungs would be permanent.

That prognosis did not sit well with Harold, who Kenneth described as being singleminded about many things in life. When Harold left the job in 1962 in Little Rock to move to Pine Bluff to open what is now Pine Bluff Truck and Trailer, he brought the money he had saved and the money that his business partner had invested in him. Other than that, Kenneth said, Harold had a truck, a cutting torch, a welder and an anvil, as well as all of the experience he had from fixing things on the farm and working. Kenneth worried -- and rightfully so -- that his father, who had lived life on his own terms, would not put up with having to live it any other way.

On the 23rd of December, five days after being admitted to the hospital, Harold had had enough, telling Kenneth's sister, Renee Greenlee, to "take me off this oxygen. It's time."

Renee tried to talk him out of the decision, Kenneth said.

"You know what that means?" Renee asked their father, Kenneth said.

"Yes, I know what that means," Harold said. "It's time. I'm tired of this."

In an hour and a half or two hours, Harold was gone. "It wasn't long," Debbie said, adding that the date he died was Harold and Dean's 67th wedding anniversary.

Three days later, on the 26th, Dean started to fade as well. Kenneth said they took his mother to the hospital, but there were no ICU beds available in Pine Bluff. As an illustration of how overwhelmed the hospitals in Arkansas were with covid during this period, Kenneth said they were told that the only ICU bed available in the state was in Batesville. Dean was immediately taken by ambulance there. Kenneth and Debbie went home to grab some clothes and then headed north themselves along with sister Renee.

After several days, it seemed as if Dean was going to make it. And at one point, Dean was doing so well that Kenneth and Debbie headed back to Pine Bluff to check in with the rest of the family and with work, where he had not been for a month.

But as they drove away from Batesville, Renee called him, telling him "she's going down."

"We didn't even get out of town," Kenneth said.

Like Harold, Dean was not on a ventilator but did have to wear an oxygen mask. After several days of wearing the device, however, Dean grew weary of it all. She couldn't talk, Kenneth said, but would motion and look at them with pleading eyes.

"You want your mask off?" Renee asked her.

Dean nodded, yes.

"She chose to take her mask off," Kenneth said.

The hospital allowed Kenneth and Renee into the room to see their mother, where they stayed until she died.

"We sat there and talked to her all day," Kenneth said, and on Jan. 3, Dean also was gone.

As parents get older, children begin to think about how much time their parents have left. Even when parents live a full measure and beyond, their passing is a sadness, as everyone knows who has experienced such a loss. But words hardly describe the sadness of losing all three parents that were the threads that kept a tight-knit family pulled close together nor do they describe the extraordinary pain of losing them in such a short span of time.

"I miss them like everything," Kenneth said, welling up, his damp eyes describing what his heart was feeling. "But I'm comforted knowing that they didn't suffer. They were all worried that they would have a stroke and linger away in a hospital bed or a nursing home."

Asked if there were any support groups for people who have lost loved ones to covid, Debbie and Kenneth said they didn't know of any. Kenneth said he has been comforted in his sorrow by a multitude of family members, many of whom work at the family business, but especially by his sisters, Kathryn Wilson and Renee. But Debbie said the loss of her mother and of her in-laws had been difficult. "I've had a hard time," she said.

The timing of the loss also has been tough to absorb. In December, just days after their parents became infected with covid, vaccinations started becoming available, and in January, shots started being administered in earnest. Debbie said also that she wished her mother and Kenneth's parents could have received some of the antibody treatments that started going out in November. But she said whenever they asked for them, they were turned away, saying the medicines were not available.

Kenneth and Debbie also wonder aloud if perhaps they were responsible for passing the coronavirus to their parents.

Debbie said she might have given it to her mother, but with so many people around her, it's just as likely that her mother might have picked it up from someone else, she said.

Kenneth said it's something they'll never know and not something that makes sense to dwell on.

"You always worry about that," he said. "But my father used to say, 'If I can't have a quality life, I'm ready to go.' They were very independent and got to live life that way. Dad built his life the way he wanted to, and that's the way they lived their lives."

Harold and Dean Staton, shown here at their golden anniversary celebration 17 years ago, both died from covid this winter. (Special to the Commercial)
Harold and Dean Staton, shown here at their golden anniversary celebration 17 years ago, both died from covid this winter. (Special to the Commercial)
Debbie Staton's mother, Charlotte Munson, shown here in a 2013 photograph, died of covid in December. (Special to the Commercial)
Debbie Staton's mother, Charlotte Munson, shown here in a 2013 photograph, died of covid in December. (Special to the Commercial)
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