While Lois Walton was recovering from the coronavirus at Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center, her doctor came by and showed her a picture of a teenager posing with his French horn. She told the doctor, “That’s my boyfriend!”
The boy in the photo was Eldon Walton, and he had been her boyfriend when she was just 12. They met at a church in Oregon where Lois’ father was the pastor. Her older sister, Phyllis Chappell, dated Eldon’s older brother, John Walton. For a time, the four were inseparable, often taking drives.
Lois and Eldon eventually parted ways, but found their way back to one another in 1972, multiple marriages and seven children later.
On May 8, Eldon died at age 90 from COVID-19 in the bed next to Lois. Theirs is a love story – one of a man who fought to stay alive so he wouldn’t leave his wife alone, where she would become untethered.
Lois has suffered from dementia for a decade. Sometimes she wasn’t sure where Eldon was. When he went to the grocery store, she worried he had left her. Now, he’s never coming home.
“They’ve told her at the hospital that he’s in heaven because she can handle that,” Chappell said. “She understands then that he’s OK, and that he’s not coming back.”
In her husband’s final days, Lois called out to Eldon, but because he was having trouble swallowing, he couldn’t answer. Lois also speaks of holding his hand when he passed. Michael Pederson, their son, said she constantly repeats the memories she wants to hold onto, often returning to her childhood, sharing stories her six sons had never heard. She wants to cling to moments of happiness, Pederson said.
Eldon came into Pederson’s life when he was 9 years old. One of his first memories of Eldon was going fishing for the first time.
“The funny part of it is, he got us these these funny little plastic fishing poles like you’d buy it at the five-and-dime store at the time,” Pederson said. “We stood on this bridge and the line didn’t reach the water, and we weren’t able to catch anything, but it was just the experience of going and doing it for the first time, you know?”
Pederson said Eldon didn’t just take on the responsibility of raising Lois’ six boys, he did it with love and care.
Jerry Pederson, the youngest, remembers Eldon’s Chevy Nova pulling into the driveway and then Eldon sitting with him on the front porch. Jerry was 6 and remembers having the impression that Eldon looked like Richard Nixon.
Jerry has fond memories of going to the dump with his brothers and Eldon. The boys could throw rocks and break bottles, while Eldon salvaged parts he eventually used to make each boy a bike.
“He built us bikes so we could be with the neighbor kids,” Jerry said. “They couldn’t afford to buy us bikes.”
Eldon made certain no one went without. He traveled as a salesman in the logging industry, but made a point of taking drives on the weekends and visiting tiny museums on the way.
“On a Saturday afternoon we wanted to be out in the neighborhood with our friends,” Jerry said. “We just dreaded it. I’m glad we did it as a family now, but as a kid, you really hated it. But that was my mom and his way of keeping us together.”
Jerry said his dad instilled in him an excellent work ethic, as well as a wonderful model of how a husband should treat his wife – Eldon adored Lois.
In a 1992 Christmas letter, Lois wrote: “You are a special guy and I wish every woman could have a wonderful person like you as a husband and friend. Thank you for being the caring dad you have been to my sons. You have been steady and have always been there for them as well as me, helping and quietly steadying all of us. Such a blessing you are and always have been.”
Eldon was proud of his family. He had a son, Kelly, with a previous wife, but she left him. Not long after, she died in a car accident, and Kelly came to live with Eldon and Lois for a time, but ultimately went to live with his maternal grandparents. Kelly spent weeks in the summer visiting his dad.
Eldon was also proud to serve his country. After graduating from high school, he went to boot camp and trained to be a rifleman with plans to serve on the front lines in Korea. That’s when he lost most of his hearing in his right ear. Through a mix-up, Eldon was sent to a support office to be a typist instead. Other than noting his luck, all Eldon said about his military service was hating the smell of kimchi.
A quarter of a century ago, doctors diagnosed Eldon with Parkinson’s disease. His symptoms were mild, mostly showing in his gait and his trembling hand on the steering wheel.
After many years on the road, Eldon took a job with Airflow Systems Inc., partially because Lois was depressed in Oregon and missed her family in Spokane. This was a wonderful development for Chappell, who frequently played cards with Lois, Eldon and a friend.
At age 65, Eldon retired and then went into business for himself as an independent sales rep for trucking supplies. But he didn’t want to be away from Lois for long stretches, so again he “retired,” this time to take a a part-time job as a parking lot attendant for Diamond Parking. This included parking for the Historic Davenport Hotel, and Jerry said his dad was so proud to be a part of helping that hotel run.
At 80, he stopped working for good because Lois’s dementia had gotten to the point where it was difficult for him to be away from home.
Chappell, Lois’ older sister, said Eldon helped her stay connected to Lois in his later years.
“It was Walt who kept us together and was able to see that I could see her once in a while,” said Chappell, who referred to Eldon as “Walt,” his nickname. “So now that he’s gone, I doubt if I’ll ever see her.”
In addition to his Parkinson’s, Eldon developed macular degeneration, which left him with only peripheral vision. During this time, Jerry took his father to an optometrist in Coeur d’Alene, and Jerry remembers those trips fondly as an opportunity for them to talk.
But Eldon was also asking for help – his pride made it difficult for him to do so.
Lois had stopped going to the doctor because she feared leaving the apartment, so she was no longer receiving medication that forestalled her dementia. Jerry pleaded with his father to go into assisted living – at the time, they had enough savings to cover the first two years, and afterward Medicaid would help. Eldon would not hear of it.
His boys expressed that he needed to stop driving, and Eldon lamented his lack of independence, which only grew over the years.
Parkinson’s did not affect him severely except during the times he fell ill – first a bladder infection, and then the flu in December 2019, which nearly killed him. When he fell ill, the disease made it extremely difficult to swallow and weakened him.
“(Dad) loved my mother dearly, and his words to me in the past couple years, as Mom started progressing with her Alzheimer’s, his biggest fear was leaving her alone,” Michael Pederson said. “He had several times where he was hospitalized due to sickness. There were a couple times that we didn’t think he was going to make it, but he made it out of sheer will because of my mother. He loved her, she was his sweetheart.”
After Eldon and Lois both broke their hips last year, they moved into the Spokane Veterans Home.
In visiting his father, Jerry Pederson found it touching to get to know the other veterans home residents, becoming quite attached to them. The residents didn’t receive many visitors, Jerry said, and it bothered him to see them living two to a room.
“We have this argument today right now in our public discourse of our freedom to wear masks, no masks,” Jerry said. “And here are these valiant men and women that served our country so we can have that freedom, and so often it feels like they’re just forgotten. It’s because of them that we can have this argument about mask or no mask.”
Eldon never abandoned the idea of leaving the veterans home. He was on Medicaid, and he hated, as Jerry put it, being “a ward of the state.” He was a man who believed you shouldn’t let anyone pay your way, and the room he shared with Lois was small. Jerry dutifully brought him his favorites: moon pies, Coca-Cola and Doublemint gum.
On Easter, Jerry spoke with his father on the phone and Eldon said he and Lois both had a cough. Jerry was concerned, both were tested, and the tests came back negative. A few days later, the entire veterans home was tested and Lois and Walt were positive. That weekend, they were moved to the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center.
And again, Eldon’s bout with Parkinson’s kicked in at the worst possible time. He couldn’t swallow, and he had a “do not resuscitate” order in his file, so he was not transferred to another hospital. As Lois said, he died holding her hand.
Jerry and his wife watched the news every night, waiting three days to hear the announcement of Eldon’s death. Finally, on a Tuesday afternoon, it was announced that a seventh and eighth patient at the veterans hospital had died. Was Eldon the seventh or eighth death? The family doesn’t know.
“Even though it’s just a number, to us it was ‘Doesn’t anyone care enough to let the world know he’s passed?’ ” Jerry said. “You want him recognized, even in death. It sounds so silly, it doesn’t really amount to much, but it meant a lot to us.”
Both Michael and Jerry think their dad could have had a couple of more good years.
“I hate to say it, but have we become a throwaway society when it comes to the elderly?” Michael said. “He was 90 years old and he had some health issues, but I think he probably could have gone a few more years.”
Lois remains in the hospital, but she is stable. She thinks her nurses and doctors are her neighbors, and she enjoys socializing with them. She still tests positive for the coronavirus, but doctors think there might be dead strains of the virus in her nasal passages causing the positives. Once she tests negative, she will return to the Spokane Veterans Home, living two weeks in the quarantine COVID-19 unit.
Jerry’s house sits on the southwest rim of Five Mile Prairie, and he can see from his window the Mann-Grandstaff VA Medical Center where his mom is.
“We’re so close, but we’ve been so very far away,” Jerry said. “Every morning and afternoon, all I can do when I look out the window towards that building is say a prayer. For both my parents at the time, now it’s Mom, but it’s the only thing I can do.”
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