Jaime DeVries stepped outside St. Vincent Healthcare on the morning of Jan. 31 and into the flurry of fat, soft snowflakes falling in Billings.
Exhausted, she thought of her infant son, Alejandro Lupe Gonzalez, who had died in her arms in the early moments of that day, just 96 minutes after his birth.
“The snow, it just made me think that this was his way of telling me and his dad that it’s OK, that we don’t need to worry about him,” DeVries said. “It made me feel at ease.”
Months before Alejandro’s birth, his family knew their time with him would be short — probably a few minutes, maybe an hour, doctors told them — because he’d be born with a heart condition that was likely to be fatal.
While most expecting families look for cribs and strollers and dream of what their child will become, DeVries and Daniel Gonzalez, her fiance and Alejandro’s father, were planning a funeral and finding a casket for their unborn son.
The large mixed family — including DeVries’ two children and Gonzalez’ four — has made peace with his short life and death while still grappling daily with sadness.
The family has grown closer thanks to Alejandro. His brief life touched so many people who never met him. DeVries and Gonzalez hope sharing their story will continue the healing process and provide comfort for others.
“We’re still going to live,” Gonzalez said. “My children need me, our children still need us and it’s nice to have Jaime to hold onto at night.”
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In the 96 minutes from his birth to death, Alejandro knew one thing.
“All he knew was love,” Gonzalez said. “And that’s awesome. I wish that could happen for everybody.”
He spent his whole life in the arms of his parents, sister and grandparents. They showered him with hugs and kisses and tears as they held him close.
Five months into the pregnancy — in the fall of 2014 — DeVries went in for a routine checkup and learned Alejandro had a heart condition. She and Gonzalez visited a handful of specialists. The parents initially thought things might work out until, about a month later, a specialist informed them of the scope of Alejandro’s heart defect.
“He basically told us there was absolutely no chance that he was going to make it,” she said.
Alejandro developed in the womb with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a rare condition in which the left side of the heart doesn’t fully develop and can’t properly pump oxygen-rich blood to the rest of his body.
Everything added up to make surgical options uncertain and risky at best.
“We just kept up hope that things would work out,” DeVries said.
As the pregnancy progressed, the family planned as best it could for the likelihood of losing Alejandro.
Still, they hoped for a miracle. Shortly before Thanksgiving, DeVries traveled to a Boston hospital to visit with a doctor who specializes in conditions like Alejandro’s.
The doctor said Alejandro’s lungs were filled with fluid, a complication that greatly reduced his chance of survival and made surgery more difficult.
Typical surgical options involve a series of three operations to repair the heart, the first one on the first day of his life. Doctors told the family Alejandro’s condition was so advanced that he would probably need a heart transplant even if the first surgery was successful.
Even though her sister traveled to meet her in Boston, DeVries felt alone, more than 2,000 miles away from Gonzalez and their children. She called home to tell him just how slim Alejandro’s chances of living were, and the couple decided that she’d come home.
“I felt really lonely,” she said. “We cried on the phone together. The hardest part was having to hear Daniel cry, and I wasn’t there with him. He was crying, and I couldn’t be there.”
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Gonzalez works at the Signal Peak coal mine but is a boxer when he’s not working. He has taken to the ring in nearly 50 matches on the Montana boxing circuit. At first he did what he’s always done — he fought back.
“My initial reaction was to kind of get angry a little bit,” he said. “I didn’t believe it, of course. I trust in God and I have faith in God, but I didn’t know why this would happen.”
Still, when DeVries returned home, the family began to prepare for Alejandro’s birth and death. They started by telling their children: Daniel Gonzalez, 14; Marcella Gonzalez, 13; Antonio Gonzalez, 9; Makayla O’Neill, 9; Valencia Gonzalez, 7; and Isaiah O’Neill, 7.
“We were upfront and honest,” DeVries said. “I knew we just had to do it that way. We told the kids that we thought we were going to have a baby but we had an angel instead.”
The kids, and their parents, started doing little things around the house for Alejandro. They made small memory books. They hung photos. They touched DeVries' swelling belly and talked to the baby.
They drew in close and leaned on family — both DeVries and Gonzalez are Billings-born-and-raised — for help. Relatives, especially DeVries’ and Gonzalez’s parents, took on a larger role with day-to-day tasks and the care of the kids.
As they began to rely on each other more for love and support in their grief and uncertainty, they also began to look at the ways the yet-to-be-born Alejandro had already changed their lives. They’d opened up to each other in new ways and they’d cried together. They'd learned to pull each other through times of grief and come to appreciate the time they have together.
“We can’t be down and out,” DeVries said. “It definitely hurts — more than anything — but we can’t do that.”
Gonzalez began to look inward, trusting his faith in God, and examined the lessons he wanted his children to learn, rattling off a list of life lessons he hopes to impart.
“It hurts deeply,” he said. “But for our kids, we need to learn ’em to love others. Life is good, and God is great. Treat others as you’d want to be treated. Every life is precious.”
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DeVries went into labor on the afternoon of Jan. 30, just a few days before a scheduled induced labor.
Family and hospital staff packed into the hospital room. DeVries estimated that 20 people visited while she was in labor and before her father rounded up all of the kids, except for 13-year-old Marcella, at about 6:30 to take them home for the night.
With his parents, sister, a few relatives and a handful of nurses on hand, Alejandro was born at 10:24 p.m., dark-haired, red-faced and squalling.
“That’s all he did was cry,” DeVries said. “He was perfect and beautiful and little and he looks just like his father.”
Not knowing how much time Alejandro had, DeVries and Gonzalez traded off holding, hugging and kissing their son. They touched his face and his little hands, and they cried with him while telling him how much they love him.
After an hour or so, Alejandro’s condition began to settle and he slowly quieted. Nurses and other hospital staff kept checking in, both on the infant and on his parents. Everybody left a little different from when they came in, DeVries said.
“In an hour and a half, he touched so many people’s lives,” she said. “It wasn’t long at all. It wasn’t long enough.”
Gonzalez said that as his son passed away — exactly how doctors said he would and right at midnight — he still prayed until the very end that they were somehow wrong.
“I thought he had it whooped,” Gonzalez said. “He was in Mom’s arms and gasping for air. You cry real hard when you’re gasping for air like that. I was OK if he was crying and gasping because that meant he was fighting. As long as he was crying, he was alive.
“Up until the very end I had hope that he’d make it. After a while, it was just quiet.”