FARGO — A North Dakota family is grieving the loss of a father and son within days of one another.
The son, who was not vaccinated against COVID-19 and had a seemingly mild case of the illness, died suddenly on Nov. 6.
His father died with dementia three days later.
John Leon Mari, 58, of Fargo, developed breathing trouble at home and collapsed as his wife Lynne tried to get him to the hospital.
Justo Leon Mari, 94, died with family at his side at Kinder Care Assisted Living in West Fargo.
Brother and son Jeff Mari, 63, said he thinks John “called” his dad to join him in heaven after his death. Sister and daughter Marilyn Werre, 61, said a fellow resident happened to be singing "Amazing Grace" at the time.
Family members held a joint memorial service and funeral. “It comforted the family to know they were together,” Werre said.
Both men worked in health care. Justo Mari, a native of the Philippines who was a physician and surgeon in North Dakota and Minnesota, retired nearly 30 years ago. John Mari was a doctor of optometry and operated 20/20 Vision Express in Fargo.
Both John and wife Lynne came down with COVID, but her symptoms were worse than his, she said.
She, though, had been fully vaccinated against COVID. He had not, citing a lifelong fear of needles and doctors’ offices. Family members tried unsuccessfully to convince him.
John had no apparent underlying health conditions and had taken just three sick days over his 30 years in practice, she said. He died within an hour of resisting his wife’s pleas to take him to the emergency room.
The family, and John, would have celebrated his 59th birthday on Thanksgiving Day.
'I feel fine'
Lynne Mari also worked at 20/20 Vision Express, and on Monday morning of the week John died, he asked her to cancel his patients for the day. He’d been awake coughing the night before and didn’t want to cough on patients in the small exam rooms.
The next morning, same cancellation request, but Lynne didn’t worry because John said he felt fine other than the cough.
She did suggest COVID tests, so John, Lynne and daughter Jade, who’d also been around her dad over the weekend, all took the test.
The women were negative but John’s test was positive, so he began to quarantine.
On Wednesday, Lynne woke up feeling off. She got tested and was positive. A terrible headache and nausea sent her to bed for nearly three days while John was up “putzing” around the house, she said.
She had previously received two doses of the Pfizer vaccine, while he, with his needle-phobia, had turned the vaccine down.
Friday night, she got out of bed and found John downstairs watching the UND-Denver hockey game. He was coughing but asked for some soup and stayed up late, she said.
Saturday morning, the landline phone rang at 6:40.
She wasn’t surprised, because John often called it from his cellphone if he was out in the garage or in the basement, using the phones as an intercom system, of sorts.
He asked his wife for a decongestant to break up mucus in his chest. She brought it to the upstairs bedroom where he had been sleeping, noticed he was covered in sweat and offered to take him to the doctor.
“He’s Mr. Optimistic. He's sitting up ... ‘No, no, I feel fine,’” she said.
He took the medicine, and said he’d first wait to see if it would help before going in.
Lynne, a devout Catholic, went to another room to say the rosary and call her brother-in-law Jeff to get his opinion.
No more than 40 minutes later, she went back to find John with his face turning gray, and begged him to let her take him to the hospital.
John insisted on taking a shower first and then struggled to get dressed afterward. Lynne tried to walk him over to the bed but he collapsed and fell on top of her.
She realized she couldn't get him in the car herself, so she called 911.
In the short period that followed, John took two or three shallow breaths and then — there was “no more,” she said.
The 911 dispatcher advised her to start CPR, which she did, but it was all too late.
Emergency crews that arrived also tried, to no avail.
“There was nothing really that they could do,” Lynne said.
'Don't put your family through this'
After John’s death, a coroner told Lynne Mari this is happening more frequently with some COVID patients and newer strains of the virus.
The lungs get so filled with mucus, they can’t expand and oxygen levels plummet with little warning. “As a result, it's near-death before you even really know what's going on,” Lynne said.
John and Justo were buried at Holy Cross Cemetery South in Fargo.
Justo is remembered as a man of few words but who loved to joke with others, and John, as someone whose smile always brightened the day.
John gave the people he cared for funny or endearing nicknames.
When family members were notifying friends about his death, they had trouble figuring out who was who in John’s cellphone contacts, because they were listed by nickname only.
John and Lynne had planned to spend retirement in Arizona and at a newly finished cabin on the site of the original Mari family cabin on Little McDonald Lake in Otter Tail County, Minnesota.
The kids, grandkids and cousins are close, and were looking forward to more gatherings there in the future. Those gatherings will go on without John.
His youngest child, son Jarrett, encouraged memorial service attendees to get vaccinated if they haven’t done so.
“Don’t put your family through this,” he said.