In a small viewing room at a Billings funeral home, Daniel Gonzalez made small talk with family and friends.
They offered condolences and hugs. He’d thank them in short, clipped sentences and sometimes hug back or offer his hand for a quick handshake.
He quickly switched the subject, focusing on a boxing match he was scheduled to fight in a few days in Kalispell. Gonzalez was a little worried about his conditioning for the eight-round bout but thought he’d fought enough matches during the years to let his experience and muscle memory guide him.
But his gaze kept drifting across the room to the tiny white-and-gold casket holding the body of his infant son, Alejandro Lupe Gonzalez.
Gonzalez smiled and chatted until he was the last person in the room, rose from his chair and walked to the open casket. He leaned in close, resting his arms along the casket’s edge, and hung his head, eyes closed, as the smile left his face.
Less than a week earlier, on Jan. 31, Alejandro, the son of Gonzalez and his fiancee Jaime DeVries, died just 96 minutes after he was born at St. Vincent Healthcare.
“It’s hard, most definitely, you know,” Gonzalez said. “Alejandro is in heaven now while our lives go on. I want to let people know they’re not the only ones out there going through this. If it could help just one person out there, that’s what we want. It’s not the end.”
A fatal condition
Alejandro was born late on Jan. 30 with hypoplastic left heart syndrome, a birth defect that left the left side of his heart severely underdeveloped and unable to pump enough blood to his body.
In addition, his lungs were filled with fluid and his condition was so advanced that corrective surgeries had a low probability of success and no guarantee that Alejandro’s quality of life would improve if completed.
His family — Gonzalez, DeVries and their combined six children — knew last fall that Alejandro would probably not live long, with doctors saying it could be as little as a few minutes.
They got 96 minutes.
While only his parents, one sibling and a few other people were there when he was born, everybody met Alejandro shortly after he died.
“The more I talk to people, the more they’re touched by Alejandro and his story, even people who didn’t know him,” DeVries said.
Now, reminders of him line the family’s house. Amid the toys and clutter that come with six children under one roof, collages of dozens of pictures of Alejandro from his brief life sit against walls. Plaster casts of his tiny hands and feet, made for the family by hospital staff shortly after his birth, rest in a small glass box on the mantle.
Sitting on a couch in the living room, the family talked about Alejandro fondly. DeVries pursed her lips each time she shared a memory of her son. Gonzalez sank into the couch cushions until he spoke of Alejandro, when he lit up and leaned forward attentively.
“He’s in heaven,” Gonzalez said. “I’m definitely not blaming anyone or have any hate about any of this. There is a lot of hatred in society and the world, and he doesn’t have to see any of that.”
Marcella Gonzalez, 13, sat quietly on the floor. She was the only sibling to hold Alejandro while he was alive and cried alongside her parents when he died. She listened carefully.
Valencia Gonzalez, 7, perched on the arm of the couch while her father and DeVries talked about her little brother.
“Can we talk about something else for a little while?” she said.
Help for a funeral
Early in the process of planning for Alejandro’s funeral, DeVries and Gonzalez learned that the Ramsey Keller Memorial Foundation would pay for all of the funeral and burial costs.
The foundation pays for infant funerals in Montana.
Not having to worry about how to cover that $5,000-plus obligation played a big role in allowing the family to focus on one another and mourn Alejandro.
They were so thankful that they asked people to make donations to the foundation in lieu of flowers or other tributes.
“That was very much appreciated,” Gonzalez said.
Alejandro brought the family closer. They cried together and leaned on each other. They planned what to do and talked about what they were going through. They decided how they’ll move on.
“Alejandro is just as much a part of our family and our lives as anyone else,” DeVries said.
For DeVries, seeing her son during his open-casket viewing the day before the funeral wasn’t the hard part. Wrapped in a blanket and wearing a blue beanie, he looked peaceful, like he was sleeping.
The hardest part was knowing that the next morning she wouldn’t wake up to tend to her son. Instead, she’d wake up and bury him.
“It feels like my son,” she said, looking at him in his casket. “It doesn’t feel weird to me. It’s going to feel weird when I have to say goodbye … the hardest part of all of this is not waking up in the morning and having a diaper to change or to get a bottle. It’s not having a crying baby there in the morning.”
The family said goodbye to Alejandro on Feb. 6. Nearly 100 people attended his services.
During the simple, short ceremony, the Rev. Elizabeth Sillerud from American Lutheran Church described Alejandro as “a precious, beloved baby.” Echoing Gonzalez’s words, she said, “all he ever knew was love.”
“There are no words for your grief,” she said. “There are no words for the life you hoped to live with Alejandro.”
After the ceremony, the family led a procession to nearby Mountview Cemetery. On a warmer-than-usual winter day — a very uncharacteristic early February temperature of 49 degrees — with the sun pushing through the occasional cloud overhead, they buried Alejandro.
Toward the end of the burial, family and friends each placed a yellow rose on Alejandro’s casket. Gonzalez held onto his, waiting for everybody to have their turn before he took his.
Rose in one hand, he hung his head and began to sob, placing his free hand over his face while the rest of the family stopped putting their roses on the casket and comforted Gonzalez.
Not long after, small bursts of laughter bubbled up from Gonzalez, DeVries and their children. At one point, Valencia, sitting on the lap of one of her grandmothers, almost slipped to the ground before catching herself and teetering to the right.
The two looked at each other and started to giggle. After a few moments, Gonzalez, DeVries and the rest of their children joined in.
At the end of the burial, four of the family’s six children broke off to an unused patch of turf nearby to play catch with a football and chase each other.
“I want people to be grateful,” Gonzalez said later. “When things are difficult, it could be a lot worse. You need to appreciate and love your family.”
They also want Alejandro’s story, and their own, to be something that can help others.
For families who lose a child, they want them to know there are others out there who’ve found a way to survive.
“They’re definitely not alone,” DeVries said. “They’re not by themselves at all.”
And for people who hear their story and don’t have children or aren’t facing life-threatening situations, the family hopes that it inspires them to draw their loved ones in a little closer.
“Just remember to appreciate what you have, your family, your life,” Gonzalez said.
He said he’d also like to someday, if finances and time allow, open up a boxing gym in Billings and name it Alejandro’s Boxing.
At home, DeVries and Gonzalez continue to talk with their children about Alejandro. They visit his grave and share their thoughts.
“He has definitely changed my life in an awesome way,” DeVries said.
The act of remembering Alejandro has inspired the family to live better and encouraged them to rely on each other.
“It gives me drive to behave and do right so I can see him again,” Gonzalez said. “Part of dealing with it is to discuss it, to let it go, to resolve it. If there’s something to know, they can know it. We’re blessed with a houseful of children and they still need us. We all know it’s hard and life goes on.”