Remembering Kristin Donato, 1947 – 2019
Kristin Donato lived a life of joy and sorrow, accomplishment and defeat, love and loss. A life like many others, and yet so unique to her own experience. Let’s start with the facts.
Kristin was born to James Duer Nelson and Irma Ellen Kokko in Logan, Utah, on May 30, 1947, following our father’s return from WWII. Kokko, as mother was called, wrote to Kristin in a journal:
“When you were 4 months old your Daddy and I decided all of us would rather live permanently in a place where the sun shines most of the time and where it doesn’t snow and get as cold as in Utah. We chose to come to Phoenix, Arizona where your Daddy’s Mother has deeded an acre of citrus-grove land to us. Soon we hope to have a house for you to call your own. We can hardly wait for the time to come when we can take you and your new white bed into your new home.”
She described baby Kris the following way: “You are a happy baby all day long. You respond to people readily. You get so excited when someone talks to you or you see yourself in a mirror that you can hardly contain yourself. You squirm all over and grin from ear to ear. You still chatter and like to make bubbles.”
Living with his mother Naomi Nelson in her Phoenix home, Jim designed and began construction of their home. He had a loan from Grandpa William Kokko and labor help from Uncle Pete Nelson. Their work was interrupted when Jim accepted a job with Southwest Forestry to build the McNary, Arizona sawmill foundations. It was there that sister Jami Janine was born, October 26, 1948. Soon after, they returned to Phoenix, where all of Jim’s siblings were now living.
On July 4, 1951, Daddy Jim committed suicide–a choice we have never understood. This loss was a tragedy that Kristin carried with her always. In a grief counseling class once, she described his death as the worst event in her life.
Kokko remarried on August 12, 1953, to Ariel Quincy Robison–a handsome adventurer seven years younger than she. Ariel worked for Garrett AiResearch, an aerospace manufacturer established in southern California, where Ariel grew up. He was a pilot, a sailor, a hunter, a skier, a tennis player. Though he loved his girls and taught them much, like how to wield a hammer and a paint brush, I think he always wished he’d had a son! Ariel continued construction on the home, eventually adding four bedrooms, two bathrooms, a garage, a guest house, a swimming pool. Without realizing it at the time, we were so fortunate to live in a beautiful home in a citrus grove adjacent to Nelson uncles, aunts, cousins and our grandmother. North Phoenix then was rural and a fun place to grow up. We climbed Nae’s mulberry tree, built forts in the citrus groves, rode our bikes everywhere, bought eggs from a local farm.
On March 28, 1956, Quin joined our sisterhood. She learned much from her big sisters Kris and Janine, like her tenderness for animals, her love of books and perhaps her stubbornness. But our family was still growing! On Kris’ birthday, May 30, 1962, the same night Janine “graduated” from 8th grade, sister Tiffini was born. At the time, mother was 40, Kris turned 15, Janine was 13, and Quin 6. We all loved our new baby sister, but Kris had a special connection with beautiful baby Tiffini and enjoyed helping mother care for her. It was also in 1962 that Kristin was baptized a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.
A year later, in the summer of 1963, another big change occurred. Tired of Ariel’s frequent travels for his work, and challenged by managing a home and four daughters on her own, Kokko encouraged Ariel to explore another line of work. His choice surprised us all–he purchased a cattle farm and moved his family to tiny Mancos, Colorado. The girls have different memories of this brief adventure–Quin remembers her horse Silver Queen and Kris remembers the boys– but it certainly had an impact on all of us. After only seven months, most cattle died of shipping fever resulting in devastating financial losses, and the Robison family returned to their Phoenix desert home.
Life returned to “normal” for us girls. We attended Madison Meadows and Central High School, where Kris graduated in 1965. Kokko, who once served as Phoenix Panhellenic President, and helped found a chapter of Pi Beta Phi sorority at Arizona State University, was excited to have Kris move to the ASU campus and pledge as a Pi Phi. This joy was cut short when the same fall Mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. She died five months later, April 9, 1966. The girls ages were 19, 17, 10, and 4. Ariel and his girls were bereft, wondering how life could go on without Kokko. The answer came when Ariel met Bette Holmes on a business trip to Seattle.
On Labor Day weekend, 1966, Ariel and Bette were married. And we added Bette’s daughter Jill, the fifth beautiful blond sister, to the Robison fold. Ariel accepted a job transfer and moved his family to southern California to begin a new stage in the Robison story. Only this time, Kris and Janine were left behind, staying in Arizona to attend ASU. It was there in the fall of 1966 that Kris and Janine flirted with their waiter at a Scottsdale restaurant. Richard Warren Donato asked Kris for her number and, not long after, asked her to be his wife. At the end of fall semester 1966, Kris left school and moved in with Rick’s parents. Kris and Rick married In March 1967. She worked in an assembly plant with his mother while Rick finished his bachelor’s degree at ASU.
With the military draft still in place (we were at war in Vietnam), Rick entered the Army and was sent to Fort Campbell, Kentucky, where he served as a Quarter Master. While there, Kris and Lieutenant Rick had their first and only child–Erin Marie Donato, born September 23, 1971. Kris was thrilled to be a mother, which was destined to be her primary role in life.
After his service, the Donato family returned to Arizona. Kris cared for Erin and the household while Rick entered and completed law school at ASU. He accepted a job as Assistant County Attorney, and his small family moved to Yuma, Arizona. Rick’s career was successful, and he ultimately served as a County Judge. But sadly, Kris was not with him to share this success. The two were divorced in 1980, when Erin was nine. Kris enrolled at Arizona Western College in Yuma, completed an LPN nursing program, and went to work at Yuma Regional Medical Center while she continued her studies. She completed her RN degree in 1989, the same spring that Erin graduated from high school.
When Erin began college at AWC, she elected to live with her father, and in 1990, Kris moved back to the Phoenix area. She held multiple nursing positions over time, most notably at Thunderbird Samaritan Hospital. Her favorite assignments were on the Nursery and Pediatrics floors where she could interact with the other infants and children she had wanted, but never had. In 1991, Erin left college and moved to Phoenix to live with her mother. In 1998, Erin met Robert Cleaver, who lived in their same apartment complex. When Robert’s mother died suddenly, Kris and Erin took him in to their home. Erin and Robert were married a few years later, on May 8, 2003.
Over time, Kris suffered from an alcohol addiction. Recognizing its negative effect on her life, Kris enrolled herself in a rehab program and became an active participant in Alcoholics Anonymous. She remained sober from 1998 forward, but some physical damage was already done. She also faced lapses in judgment that lead to the loss of her nursing credential. Financial crisis followed. For several years she lived at UMOM, an adult shelter home, where she found a close friend in Harry Fahmy.
When she qualified for Social Security Disability, Kris was able to establish her own apartment again, and was joined off and on by Erin and Robert. Kris was their safety net throughout their ups and downs, providing a home and refuge when needed. Kris helped Robert on his own path to sobriety by encouraging him to enter a half-way house when he needed that extra push. Erin and Robert were able to rent their own place a year ago, but Kris and Erin still continued their tradition of watching The Walking Dead together and having Sunday night sleepovers.
Kris suffered many medical problems: A fib, diabetes, high blood pressure, lung and kidney issues. Her body weakened, but her determination to be independent did not. She struggled forward with the help of a pace maker, a walker, her family and her cat, Boo. Last July 2018, Kris opted for an experimental Watchman surgery for her heart that she hoped would improve her quality of life. Unfortunately, the opposite was true. The surgery was hard on her already weakened body, and she was forced to go to a nursing facility for rehab, and then to an assisted living group home. When she got a minor infection last November, it spread through her body, an infection she fought for three weeks in the hospital. She didn’t give up. She kept fighting. She spent the last weeks of her life at the Christian Care Nursing Center in Phoenix, still determined to get well, to get stronger, determined to be independent once more. And she was succeeding. But her struggle ended when she died peacefully in her sleep early Sunday morning.
Throughout her life she shared a unique and close bond with her daughter Erin. She was loved by her four sisters and her son-in-law. She was described as sweet, funny, smart. We will all miss her, but I am grateful she is finally resting at peace. Perhaps she has reconnected with Daddy Jim and Kokko, who wrote to Kris as a baby:
“We feel we will be good parents because we love each other, and we love and want you. With love as our guidepost, we welcome you into our family and hearts. May you always be happy regardless of your lot in life.
Your Mommy and Daddy”
So, those are the facts, but they only tell a small part of the truth. Your love and feelings tell the rest of the story, so we hope you will share some of your memories now. Thank you.Print Obituary & Condolences