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Unimaginable pain, then joy
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Unimaginable pain, then joy

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WINSTON-SALEM—For her first birthday, Elena Kowal-check got a butterfly cake. But she probably didn't care. I bet she had just as much fun standing on her family's kitchen counter, cra-died by her dad. She watched wide-eyed as her brother and sister dusted themselves with sugar while helping their mom make homemade butter cream frosting for her cake.

But Elena's butterfly cake is a big deal. Or really, her first birthday is.

Dan and Nora Kowalcheck, husband and wife, celebrated it all week, and the family will celebrate Mother's Day today. After what seems like forever, Dan and Nora are starting to smile. They see Elena, their blue-eyed daughter with the Pebbles hairdo, as a gift.

Nora has another name for her: "God's Band-Aid."

She is.

Nora wrote about that. But first, let's talk about "Frozen."

Allie is buckled in her car seat, sitting beside her brother in the back seat of the family's minivan. They're heading home from preschool, with their backpacks at their feet. Allie has a Hello Kitty backpack, and Adam has one with the Justice League, the collection of well-known superheroes.

"Do you know 'Frozen?'" Allie blurts out.

Before I can answer, Allie starts to sing.

Allie is 3; Adam, 4. They both have seen "Frozen" dozens of times, and they both love the Disney film. But they do much together. They play house, they

play mom and dad, and they ride around their sloped driveway — Adam in his battery-powered truck, Allie on her pink tricycle.

Upstairs, Elena is under constant watch. She started to walk a few weeks ago. So if Nora or Dan isn't holding her or if Elena isn't napping, she's walking stiff-legged around the house with the help of any wall, any piece of furniture.

They're all busy, Adam, Allie and Elena. For Dan and Nora, that's good.

They're reminded of that every time they look underneath their kitchen cabinets. It's an arm's length away from where Adam and Allie huddled around the frosting bowl a few days ago. It's behind a small bottle of holy water and a photo of a white cross lettered in blue with an Orthodox prayer.

It's a white canister, a little bigger than Nora's iPhone, and it contains dirt from the grave of their son Jacob. He was their boy born with wisps of black hair. He died two years ago. He didn't have a trachea. He was barely an hour old, if that.

Since then, Dan and Nora have faced a parent's worst nightmare: burying a child. They're both 35.

They have attended a support group in Greensboro, put together by Heartstrings, a local nonprofit group that helps parents heal following a miscarriage or the loss of an infant or a young child.

For weeks on a Tuesday night, they pulled out of their cozy cul-de-sac near Wake Forest University and headed east toward Summit Avenue, toward the children hospice center known as Kid's Path, toward a room where they talked with three other couples who went through the same thing they did.

They would light a candle, have a moment of silence and spend 90 minutes working through their grief.

Nora now volunteers for Heartstrings. She works as a support-group facilitator because she found out firsthand the importance of sharing and crying with others who know how heart-wrenching a child's death can be.

Dan and Nora also relied on support from Holy Cross Orthodox Church. It's their church in High Point. Dan and Nora were both raised Orthodox — Nora is the only child of an Orthodox priest — and they both embrace the traditions of a faith that started centuries ago in Eastern Europe.

You see it in the religious icons around their house. You also see it around Nora's neck. It's the pendant that on one side shows Mother Mary and the baby Jesus. On the other is a photo of Jacob, his eyes closed, resting on Nora's chest, his body swaddled in a blanket.

All that — Heartstrings, their church, their Orthodox faith — has helped them heal.

So has Nora's writing. Since Jacob's death, she has written a lot.

She has turned the posts on her blog into a 221- page book that she self-published in March. She wants to share it with her husband, her children and her extended family. But basically, she wants to remember.

Remember when she felt scared and alone. Remember how she recovered. Remember her son.

She calls it "Jacob's Story." I read it. It's a gutpunch in parts. But it's necessary. Nora tells me that.

• ••

"61 Minutes."

That's the title of one chapter. It's the time Jacob was thought to be alive.

Like with their other children, Nora and Dan had planned a home birth with their midwife. But when they found out their son was going to be born feet first, Nora and Dan drove to a hospital nearby.

Nora didn't want a Caesarean section, and she worried that would happen if she went to a hospital in Winston-Salem. So,on March 17, 2012, she and Dan drove to Mocksville, to Davie County Hospital, so Nora could deliver Jacob naturally.

She did. Seconds later came the complications. She watched doctors and nurses huddle around her son. Dan hustled back and forth — to her, to the doctors, to the hallway to call their priest.

Dan prayed. He felt so helpless. And he felt so bad for Nora. The girl he first met as a freshman at Virginia Tech lay in bed, and she couldn't even see her son because of the medical crowd around him.

And Nora, she just ached. She knew her friends were planning a baby shower back in Winston-Salem. But in that hospital bed, all she saw in her mind was black space. Her heart was shattered.

She always had wanted three children, and she always had wanted a son named Jacob. And at 33, as she labored that night, she told herself: "I'm almost done. Almost done. Almost done."

But that all changed when she heard a doctor say: "Time of death, 10:02."

She and Dan held their son for nearly eight hours in a hospital room. They cried and prayed.

"I love you," Dan told his son. "We don't understand why you're not here, but we know you are in heaven."

They buried him in an Orthodox cemetery at a women's monastery in South Carolina. Dan put his skills as an architect — and a woodworker — to the test. Seventeen months earlier, he had built a casket for his mom, who died of cancer. Afterward, he started his own coffin-making business for Christians of the Orthodox faith.

Now, he had to build a casket for his son.

He built the casket out of knotty pine boards. He used wood glue and sanded it until it felt as smooth as woven silk. He lettered an Orthodox prayer in red on the side, sealed it with a finish coat and attached an Orthodox cross onto the lid.

That was hard enough. Then there was that big bottle of wood glue.

"The first coffin I used this jug of glue on was for my mom, and I just used up the last little bit for Jacob's," he told Nora. "I'm tired of making coffins for my family."

Nora wrote about that. She also wrote this:

"I was just trying to wrap my head around what was happening, or had happened, that Jacob had died and there was nothing anyone could have done about it, even if we had known ahead of time, this was just one of those things, those statistics you hear about, one out of every million babies die from this kind of thing, but that was never YOUR baby.

"But it was our baby."

• ••

Three months after Jacob's death, Nora started writing her blog. She wrote about everything — the hospital room, the funeral, the first week, the first year and the surprise learning that she was pregnant once again.

She opened up about her fears and talked about feelings hard to articulate, let alone live with every day for months.

"What if my other kid dies?" she thought. "That stuff happens!"

She tried to hide it. But Dan saw it in her face. He told her everything would be fine.

Yet, he worried, too.

"Lord, if you can spare us from this situation again, be merciful," he prayed. "Grant us the strength to accept thy will."

Elena was born May 5, 2013, a Sunday, Easter Sunday of the Orthodox Church. Nora gave birth at home, with a midwife and her husband by her side and a photographer a few steps away.

The photos are on the blog and in Nora's book. One photo shows Nora looking up at her husband, wide-eyed and expectant, holding Elena on her chest and laying in the upstairs bathtub where she and Dan bathed their two other children.

I asked her about it, about her thoughts at that moment minutes after Elena's birth. Three words, she told me.

"We did it."

In her blog and in her book, Nora called it "pure happiness."

"There were few tears but only tears of joy and life, real life, vivid life ... life I'd not felt since I'd been in labor anticipating joy with Jacob. I realized how long it had been since I'd felt pure happiness, and I missed it.

"My 'Safe' mode was done, everything was in color again, and I could finally breathe, really breathe. Not to just survive, but to live."

So, Elena's butterfly cake is a big deal. Mother's Day, too.

Oh, Dan and Nora still grieve. Allie was too young to remember Jacob. But Adam does. He does every time he hears Christina Perri's song, "A Thousand Years," a tune from the movie "Twilight." It was used as the soundtrack for the photos of Elena's birth.

When he hears it, he cries. Not for Elena. For "Baby Jacob."

"I didn't want him to die," he'll tell his Dad.

But Dan and Nora know they're better, they're smiling.

All because of their blue-eyed girl with the Pebbles hairdo.

"Elena brought hope back into our home," Nora tells me. "God wasn't punishing us. He gave us a gift by having her. Jacob's death still hurts. But Elena, she's God's Band-Aid.

She's good tape."

Contact Jeri Rowe at (336) 373-7374 and jeri.rowe@news-record.com.

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