LOWELL, Ind. (STMW) – Just 57 minutes. That’s how long Matthew Isaiah Peters lived. But his oh-so-brief life touched so many lives.
He was conceived last December by Christopher Peters and Nina Mendoza, to be the couple’s second child after their 2-year-old son Johnny.
Nina’s first weeks of pregnancy went without a hitch. But after an ultrasound test at her 22-week checkup, a doctor gave the couple the worst of news. Their unborn baby had no kidneys and no chance of staying alive after his birth.
“We were in shock that day,” Peters told me last week while sitting at the kitchen table of his Portage home.
“It was the absolute worst news in the world,” said Mendoza, who immediately wanted a second medical opinion on her baby’s condition.
The couple drove downstate to meet with experts at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis. More tests. Another ultrasound. Same tragic prognosis.
“Your baby has a 99.8 percent chance of dying,” they were told.
The medical diagnosis is called Potter’s Syndrome, a condition affecting one in every 40,000 infants, they learned. Depending on the syndrome’s type, their baby could live five minutes, five hours, maybe a day. Or not at all, a stillbirth, a common occurrence with this condition.
The couple — who are engaged, and together since July 7, 2007, after meeting online — faced their toughest decision by far: Terminate the pregnancy or keep the baby, knowing it would surely die soon after birth.
They returned to their hotel room, talked, prayed, cried, and prayed again. But they both knew, deep down, their joint decision.
“We couldn’t live with the fact that we chose to end our child’s life,” Peters said.
“Only God opens and closes the womb,” Mendoza added.
Still, the couple had no reassurance that their baby would live at all after his birth. Peters hoped for just five minutes, to tell Matthew they loved him. Mendoza hoped for much more. She hoped for a miracle.
“I know what the doctors told me, but my body told me there may be hope. What mother wouldn’t?” she asked. “But one thing was for sure. I knew my baby son was going to heaven to be with God.”
So, as a compromise, Mendoza asked God for a gift: “Please let me hear my baby cry, at least once, and please let me be awake when he does.”
In her previous delivery, a C-section, Mendoza was knocked out by anesthesia. In this upcoming one, no matter the pain, she wanted to be alert, to embrace every second.
In the months leading up to Matthew’s due date, they began bonding with him in the womb. They talked to him. They sang lullabies to him. They told him repeatedly they loved him.
“All he ever knew was love,” Peters said.
“But it was hell knowing our love wouldn’t be enough,” Mendoza said.
And it wasn’t.
On Sept. 30 — Matthew’s birth date and death date — he came into the world at 10:17 a.m. at St. Mary Medical Center in Hobart.
He weighed 5 pounds, 3 ounces, and was 17 inches long. He had blue eyes and a tuft of blond curly hair, just like his big brother.
As soon as he was born, he let out three loud cries.
Peters and Mendoza, along with their son, Johnny, and other family members, welcomed Matthew with open arms and hearts. They hugged him. They rocked him. They kissed him.
They swaddled him in a blanket made by his grandmother. They sang to him “Frosty the Snowman,” his big brother’s favorite song, and “Away in a Manger.” They even had him baptized as Lutheran by his grandfather, a church deacon.
Their tiny bundle of joy reacted as any baby would. He cooed. He cried. He fussed. His seemingly normal reaction even gave a hint of false hope to his mother.
“From his outside appearance, he looked perfectly healthy,” Peters said.
He wasn’t, though.
The couple learned earlier that their son’s condition had no definite cause or explanation. It happens, they were told.
For a while during Mendoza’s pregnancy, Peters struggled with his faith. Why, he asked? Why me? Why us? Why Matthew?
So many other women and couples create babies and decide to abort them, he reasoned. Other women choose to terminate their pregnancy if their baby is diagnosed with certain conditions or abnormalities.
“It wasn’t easy for either of us,” said Peters, a diabetic who was recently diagnosed with prostate cancer.
“But we both believe that life is a gift, a gift from God, no matter how long it is,” Mendoza explained.
This is why they named their baby Matthew Isaiah — “a gift of God,” they said.
At 11:14 a.m. on Sept. 30, their gift from God died.
“I felt the Holy Spirit there,” Mendoza said, wiping away a tear.
“It was an amazing peace we felt,” Peters piped in.
For the rest of the day, Peters and Mendoza cuddled Matthew’s lifeless body in their hospital room. Alone, just the three of them. They sang more lullabies. They told him he was loved, again and again.
Later that night, it was time to let him go. For an hour, Peters struggled with pushing the call button for a nurse. Finally, he pushed it and threw the button on the bed with a sigh.
“We’re ready for you to take Matthew,” Mendoza told the nurse, Mandy DeYoung, whom they now deem as “Matthew’s angel.”
“She took his first heartbeat and his last heartbeat,” Peters noted.
Earlier that day, a nurse asked Peters and Mendoza if they would be interested in having a photographer enter their room and take photos of them with their baby.
The nurse told them of a not-for-profit organization called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. The Colorado-based group coordinates 5,000 volunteer photographers in 20 countries to take intimate and sensitive portraits of newborn babies who face fatal fates.
The organization was co-founded in 2005 by two women — a mother whose baby died six days after birth, and the photographer who captured the freeze-frame images of that family together. Other parents have since told the group that without such once-in-a-lifetime photos, these memories can fade away like a cemetery in a rearview mirror.
“It’s a topic that parents rarely think of unless they or someone they know are faced with a need for it,” said spokeswoman Danielle Pereira.
In many situations, parents find out their baby has only days or hours to live and, if they’re interested, hospital personnel refer them to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Unborn infants must be at least 25 weeks gestation, according to the organization’s criteria.
Conventional advice tells parents not to bond with such doomed babies, like Matthew, to avoid getting their hearts broken. But this attitude is fading, with more parents not only choosing to bond with their babies, but also to bond with every minute of their shortened life.
Mendoza and Peters agreed, and agreed to the photos.
Rick and Jodi Bella of Bella Photography in Valparaiso entered their room to take many photos of the young family, with gentleness and warmth.
“They treated us wonderfully,” Peters recalled.
The Bellas later presented the couple with a CD of digital images and a DVD slide show, set to music, of the family’s brief time together — at no charge, all compliments of the organization and volunteer photographer.
The hospital staff also treated the couple wonderfully, giving them a memory box of gifts, including Matthew’s footprints in cement, tiny gold rings and a Christmas tree ornament with his name on it.
“They treated us like VIPs,” said Peters, noting that a couple of nurses even attended Matthew’s funeral.
On Oct. 9, Matthew’s funeral Mass took place at St. Edward Catholic Church in Lowell, Mendoza’s hometown.
A tiny teddy bear was tucked into his tiny casket with a tag saying, “I am with you always.”
Despite Mendoza’s initial wishes, her baby’s coffin was present in public. Peters convinced her he needed the closure of a wake. Mendoza thanked him later that day for his foresight. She needed closure, too.
“Believe it or not, having just lost a baby, I still have faith that God has perfect timing,” Peters told the guests. “A lot of you may think that God must have made a mistake, letting a baby die. But Matthew didn’t suffer.”
“Technically speaking, Matthew may have lived for only one hour. But for the nine months he was developing, he was doing God’s work.”
He prompted nonbelievers to believe, Peters said. He compelled believers back into church. He moved atheists to form prayer circles for the family.
“God DID make a miracle happen,” Peters told guests before carrying his son’s casket out of the church with Mendoza’s help.
They wanted to spend every possible second with their son, they told themselves.
“We’re members of a club that no one wants to ever join,” Peters said afterward.
“But we had so many little blessings from Matthew’s short life,” Mendoza said.
The couple plan on creating a website to help other parents in their situation.
“We want everyone to know that we had a son, and his name is Matthew,” Mendoza said. “And that it’s OK to say that in public.”
One last thing. Matthew was cremated and his ashes will be buried at a cemetery for babies at St. Edward in Lowell. But his parents haven’t had it in them yet to pick up his ashes from the funeral home.
“Maybe tomorrow,” they told me.
–Post Tribune, via the Sun-Times Media Wire