For the first time in years, Brenda Pittman did not greet schoolchildren on Monday morning as they arrived for their first day back at West Marion Elementary School in Foxworth, Miss. The 49-year-old music teacher (who is not related to this reporter) and resident of the small Marion County community died one week ago yesterday after a weeks-long battle with COVID-19. On Sunday, a day after her funeral, her husband, 71-year-old Charlie Pittman, also died of the novel coronavirus.
“Shortly after we laid mama to rest, he took a turn for the worst, and the doctors tried everything, but it was almost like he wanted to go,” their oldest son, 28-year-old Buck Pittman, wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday afternoon. “This morning I made the decision to take him off the ventilator and let him go comfortably and in peace.”
Since late July, Buck Pittman has used Facebook to keep family and friends abreast of news of his parents’ condition. Both were hospitalized in late July.
The couple’s younger son, 24-year-old Chad Pittman also fell ill with COVID-19 and was “very sick as well” and had to use an oxygen tank to help breathe at one point, his older brother wrote in a July 29 Facebook post.
“If y’all know my family, these are 3 of the toughest, most stubborn people I know,” Buck Pittman wrote on July 29. “I know all 3 of them are doing their best to fight this.”
‘Mama and Daddy Have Done All They Can Do’
Within the first week of August, Chad Pittman was on the mend and had returned his breathing equipment, but the brothers’ father and mother were not improving.
“I’m sorry, folks, I don’t have any good news for you today,” Buck Pittman wrote on Aug. 5.
The eldest son said that he believed the doctors and nurses were “doing their best to keep them alive,” but that both of their bodies were worn down from fighting the virus.
“There is no doubt in my mind that mama and daddy have done all they can do, because we all know how stubborn and strong they are,” Buck Pittman wrote.
Five days later, he announced that his mother, who had also worked as a music teacher and sang in her church’s praise band, had died “from complications caused by COVID-19.”
“My mother loved her God, family, and her job. … She has fed, clothed, and taught most young people in and around Marion County over the years. Anyone who has ever been touched by her singing, saxophone playing, cooking, or her wild sense of humor will not easily forget it. … My daddy is still in ICU and he does not know yet so please keep him in your prayers,” Buck Pittman wrote.
Marion County School District Superintendent Wendy Bracey, who previously served as an educator and as a principal at West Marion elementary, shared a memory of the colleague she affectionately called “Bren-der” in a Facebook post on Aug. 12.
“I took my class to the music room which was the auditorium stage at that time because there weren’t any vacant classrooms for music. Bren-der was standing there waiting for my darlings. I fell out laughing,” Bracey wrote. “She asked, ‘Mrs. Bracey, what are you laughing at?’ I said, ‘I love a chick woman teacher who can stand barefooted as a yard dog on this old wooden floor and teach kids to sing and dance.’”
COIVD-19 Outbreaks at Pittman Family’s Church
In the weeks before their deaths, the Pittmans’ family church, Mt. Carmel Church of God in Foxworth, changed its schedule and moved most services, except Sunday morning worship, back to an online-only format. After initially locking down when the coronavirus hit, Mt. Carmel resumed in-person services in late May, as Mississippi Gov. Tate Reeves put out his “Safe to Worship” guidelines.
By late July, though, the small country church had suffered from a number of COVID-19 outbreaks in its congregation. In a July 29 online prayer service broadcast just days after the Pittmans’ hospitalizations, the pastor, Daniel Smith, said that about 25 members were sick, including 16 who had already tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
When the pastor live-streamed the church’s Wednesday night prayer service last week on Aug. 12, he noted that members could either choose to watch the Sunday morning service online or attend in person. He also brought up the statewide mask mandate that Gov. Reeves put in place for two weeks as schools reopened earlier this month, but made optional for churches. Last week, the governor extended the mandate until the end of the month.
“I’m asking you to consider the (mask) mandate of the governor,” Smith said, addressing members who planned to attend in-person Sunday services. “However, there is the exemption for worship, so I know there are some that are concerned about wearing a mask in church and the exemption is there for those that worship, so you can come worship and it’s to your discretion as to whether you wear a mask or not in our building.”
Medical experts have warned that masks are less effective when only some people are wearing them, and have noted that masks primarily protect those around the wearer, since masks prevent particles from traveling as far when a wearer speaks, coughs or sings. Reeves made social-distancing guidelines optional for churches during the spring, too, citing religious-freedom concerns that Mt. Carmel’s pastor has also cited.
“The government doesn’t (have) the right to stand between God and his creation worshipping him,” Pastor Smith wrote in a Facebook post last Tuesday.
The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld pandemic restrictions in other states, though, saying officials can put restrictions on religious gatherings during a public health crisis like COVID-19.
During his Aug. 12 live stream, Smith told members that attendees for Brenda Pittman’s funeral would have to wear masks at the request of Hathorn Funeral Home, though. The church also required mourners to enter through the back door, maintain 6 feet of social distancing from others and to use hand sanitizer at four places in the building.
Even as funeral preparations were underway for Brenda Pittman, Pastor Smith noted, Charlie Pittman and another male church member were both hospitalized and on ventilators.
On Saturday, masked mourners at Mt. Carmel stood over the music teacher’s coffin, looking one last time at the woman whose obituary said “you’d have to look hard to find someone under 30 in (the) area who didn’t know, wasn’t taught by, or hadn’t been fed by Mrs. Brenda in these past years.” The church live streamed the service on their Facebook page.
‘I Know They Are Together’
Over the weekend, the Pittmans’ eldest son had agreed to share his thoughts with the Mississippi Free Press after his mother’s service. But within hours of the Saturday funeral service, his father took a turn for the worst.
On Sunday morning, the couple’s 28-year-old son posted a photo of his father and mother, smiling at the camera as they sat side-by-side on an outdoor walkway in matching wooden white rocking chairs.
“I know they are together in their heavenly home right now. I hope they are waiting on me just like this,” Buck Pittman wrote, adding a heart emoji at the end.
“Mama and daddy enjoyed taking care of kids and animals and rest assured, all the children and pets in Heaven are being well looked after,” he wrote in a separate post.
Even before she became ill, heaven had been on Brenda Pittman’s mind as the COVID-19 pandemic swept through Mississippi.
“Even though I didn’t hug my church family and had to sit away from them… it still was SO GOOD TO WORSHIP with them today,” the music teacher wrote in a Facebook post on May 24, as Mt. Carmel resumed in-person services. “At least in heaven we won’t have to worry about all of this.”