MEMPHIS, Tenn. (AP) — What do you say to a five-year-old boy whose father has died of COVID-19?
That’s the question that faced the family of Michael Mason, a truck driver living in Olive Branch who hadn’t received a vaccination and died in a hospital in July at the age of 44.
His youngest son, Maxwell, is only five and lives in Memphis. The boy’s mother is trying to help him deal with his grief.
“She explained to him that he will not see Michael,” said Sabrina McCray, a sister of the man who died. “He won’t be able to see him. But that my brother Michael will be always looking over him — so like the brightest star in the sky.”
“She says some nights what they do is go outside. And that Maxwell will look for the brightest star.” Then he speaks to the star as though it was his father, she said.
“She’s just trying to get him to cope with it.”
The young boy isn’t the only one who lost his father: Mason also leaves a 22-year-old stepson, Jaylan Lyons and a 23-year-old son, Michael Mason Jr.
The wrenching loss illustrates the ongoing toll of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Memphis area.
Mason’s sister doesn’t know if her brother had the delta variant, but public health officials have said the variant now accounts for a large majority of cases here.
His relatively young age may reflect what some doctors around the country have said about the variant: that patients are “younger, sicker, quicker,” a sharp contrast from earlier waves of the virus which mostly affected elderly people.
Mason’s unvaccinated status is likewise common among people who die of COVID-19 today. Public health officials say the overwhelming majority of people who are hospitalized or die of the virus have not received shots.
His sister wanted to share his story publicly to encourage people to protect themselves. “If you don’t want to go through what we’re going through, it’s probably best to go ahead and take the vaccine,” she said.
A HANDS-ON DAD
Jessica Green is the mother of the five-year-old boy, Maxwell. She said she had known Mason since they were in the fourth grade and they were together as a couple from about 2015 to about 2017.
“He’s been a lifelong friend, even though our relationship didn’t work out,” she said. “And I would always praise him for being as hands-on and as active with Maxwell as he was.”
If she gave Mason a last-minute message about a school event, he’d show up, sometimes still driving in his work truck.
Every other weekend, Maxwell would go stay with his father, who took him on outings with another young nephew. The father would sometimes spray his son with cologne, Original Penguin brand.
The boy’s mother would complain about it. “I would fuss and say ‘Please don’t give him a bath and bring him home smelling like an old man!’” she said, and laughed.
Laughter was something Mason often brought into people’s lives, said McCray, the sister. She said his wife called him a comedian. “He was just fun and loving.”
He used to greet her daughter by saying “What’s up, favorite niece!” His sister says she’s sure he greeted all his nieces and nephews the same way.
One funny gesture began several years ago when his mother was going through cancer treatment and lost her hair. “He would take his hand, the palm of his hand and just rub the top of her head.” He continued to do that friendly rub even after she recovered and her hair grew back.
He had two older brothers and four older sisters, one of whom had died. He had grown up in South Memphis, attending Whitehaven High School, his sister said.
He didn’t graduate with his class, but later finished a GED, she said.
He loved the Pittsburgh Steelers, played basketball and enjoyed traveling to fun destinations such as Gatlinburg and Panama City Beach.
In 2019, he married Tracy Mason in a ceremony at the courthouse, then enjoyed a reception for a few close friends and family members in Olive Branch. The couple had three sons from previous relationships, including Maxwell, the five-year-old.
Mason’s sister said he not only took care of his own children, but mentored his nephews and helped his relatives: for instance, going to his mother’s house to wash her car and take care of other chores.
Mason had spent much of his trucking career as an employee working for companies, but the newly married couple incorporated their own trucking business together in April 2020. It’s called Eagle Eye Logistics LLC. It was small, just one truck and one driver, Mason himself, but he was excited about it, his sister said.
MOTHER WANTED CHILDREN TO GET VACCINATED
According to Sabrina McCray, their mother wanted her son and her other children to get vaccinated.
They had two family meetings this spring. McCray said she didn’t take the vaccine. Neither did her brother, though someone later told her he was thinking about it.
She says their main concern was the vaccine was so new. Reports of side effects worried her.
“Some people said they got chills, they got headaches.”
She recalled talk of deaths and nerve damage, and of seeing a TikTok video about a mother whose son developed blood clots.
“And I’m like, ‘Oh my God.’”
“Those are the things I think for some people that are keeping them from taking it.”
Vaccines routinely cause side effects such as arm pain and fatigue. However, reports of more serious vaccine side effects are extremely rare. The CDC says the Johnson & Johnson vaccine has been associated with a blood clot condition called TTS.
As of May, 8.7 million people had been people with the Johnson & Johnson vaccine, and the number of confirmed blood clot cases was 28. Zero cases had been reported among people who took the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines.
In contrast to the tiny numbers of serious complications from vaccines, the COVID-19 virus itself has proven exceptionally deadly.
Nationwide, an estimated 642,451 people had died of COVID-19 as of Thursday.
That’s equivalent to nearly the entire population of the city of Memphis dying. (Memphis has an estimated 651,000 people.)
In Shelby County alone, 1,878 people had died of the virus as of Thursday. In DeSoto County, where Mason died, the virus had claimed 297 more lives as of August 21.
Jessica Green also recalled talking with Mason about the vaccine and telling him, “Michael, you’re a truck driver! You need to be vaccinated.” But he said he wasn’t likely to do it unless it was required for work.
McCray said she prayed for guidance about the vaccine.
“I was praying about it and asking God to give me a sign. Do I take it or do I not?”
“I just didn’t think it would come in this form of losing my brother.”
A TRIP, THEN SICKNESS
Michael Mason went on a trip this summer with his wife to Branson, Missouri. His sister believes that’s where he likely caught the virus.
“He told me on June 29th that he had taken the test, that he wasn’t feeling well,” his sister said. He had some risk factors — he was overweight and slept with a CPAP machine, a device for treating sleep apnea, a breathing disorder, his sister said.
At first, he tried to recover at home.
“I would text him daily and tell him I had to hear his voice,” his sister said. “So the last time I spoke to him was July 3rd.”
“I just told him to take care of himself? How are you doing? How are you feeling? Are you OK? Try to push the fluids because I think he still had the fever going on.”
“And he said he was.” She said he urged him to go to the hospital if he needed to.
“But he kept saying he was OK.” His wife was likewise optimistic, she said.
The next day, July 4, he was admitted to Methodist Olive Branch Hospital.
He was later placed on a ventilator. On July 13, a Tuesday morning, he died.
Mason leaves his wife, Tracy Mason; his father, Ellihue “Eddie” Mason; his stepmother and his mother, Mary Hampton, a cancer survivor. His sister had to deliver the news to her.
“That broke my heart to go tell my mom that her baby died. Hooh! That’s hard. That’s hard.”
She said their mother, now 72, was so devastated by her son’s death that she was unable to attend his memorial service.
BREAKING THE NEWS TO A CHILD
Jessica Green, the mother of five-year-old Maxwell, lives in Whitehaven and learned of Mason’s death early in the day. “I found out before Max went to school, so I had all day to kind of think about it, how I would break it to him,” Green said.
Green, 43, now runs a nail business, but formerly worked as a kindergarten teacher. She remembered a book that a guidance counselor had recommended for a student whose parent had died. It was called “The Brightest Star in the Sky.”
Author Chyemenn Santos has said she wrote the book after her own husband died in a car crash and she saw her sister struggling to share the news with her young children.
When the mother told Maxwell that July day that his father was dead, he cried — and he didn’t immediately accept that the loss was real. “He asked me and he asked multiple times, ‘My dad died?’”
“I know he asked me like three times. And he eventually said, ‘I keep asking you because I can’t believe it.’”
She told him an idea that’s related to the book. “I said, ’Well, tonight, we’ll go outside, and we’ll look in the sky . . . We’re gonna try to find the brightest star. And we’ll say that we’re talking to Michael because the brightest star in the sky is Michael.”
So that night, they did just that.
“We just kind of sat in the backyard on the patio and I just let him cry,” she said. She said he could say anything to his father.
“He said, ‘I love you and I’m gonna miss you.’”
After that night, the young boy still kept asking if his father was really dead, his mother said. At first, in his nightly prayers, he asked God to bring his father back. “And I said ‘It normally doesn’t happen that way, but just pray that he’s OK.’ And so he’ll pray that his daddy’s OK and he’s not hurting or he’s not in pain.”
Many children are facing the same traumatic loss as Maxwell. Between 37,000 and 43,000 children in the United States have lost at least one parent to COVID-19, according to University of Southern California researchers.
That’s a 20% higher parental loss than a normal year. Black children suffered a disproportionate number of parental losses — they’re only 14% of children in the U.S., but made up 20% of those who lost a parent to COVID-19, the researchers wrote.
Those numbers are as of February, and don’t include the current, deadly delta wave. Loss of a parent in childhood can profoundly influence the course of a child’s life, increasing the risk of problems in education, income and mental health, the researchers wrote.
Family members held memorial services for Michael Mason in Memphis on July 31.
“There were so many people there at the visitation that he had,” his sister said. She attributes this to his loving, outgoing nature.
Among the visitors who attended was his young son, the boy’s mother said. “He told me at the end, ‘Now I know that my daddy’s really dead.’ He said ‘I thought it was a prank at first.’”
His aunt says he prays and believes his father is in heaven. But she said the grief comes in waves for all of the family members, and she’s sure there will be times when the sadness hits the young boy hard.
“We know God makes no mistakes. He’s in a better place. But that’s hard to tell a five-year-old. That’s hard to tell a young adult.”
“I’m 54, but it’s still hard for me too.”
VACCINATIONS AND COLOGNE
The death prompted many of the surviving family members to go get vaccines, including Sabrina McCray, her two children, her sister, her sister’s son, a cousin and some other people.
“So I’m going to say between eight to 10 people through his death have taken the vaccine, and maybe more.” In a followup interview, she said the number has grown to 12 to 14.
She said she hopes more people will hear his story and feel motivated to do the same.
“We lost our loved one, but if it can save someone else from going through what we’re going through, that’s the ultimate goal.”
In the meantime, Jessica Green said she plans to enroll Maxwell in a grief counseling program.
Other men in the family help, too. “I have a family full of strong men and those kind of fill in as much as they can,” she said. “But of course, you can never take the place of someone’s father.”
They’ve found other rituals, too. The boy feels comforted by wearing his dad’s Original Penguin cologne.
“I’ll put a little bit on him and he’ll smell it. And he’ll ask for it from time to time,” his mother said.
“I have videos of them, pictures. I’m actually making a photo album for him. So he’ll actually have a hard copy of a photo album.”
“And we just talk about him. We talk about him like he’s still here. He’ll tell me he misses him and he wishes he could see him.”
And sometimes at night, she still takes her son out to the backyard, where he talks to the brightest star.