Heart and soul

Hus­band’s, daddy’s love an ever-fixed mark

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - GINNY MONK

BEEBE — Matthew We­zow­icz knew he was in love that night — not the hor­mone-driven love of teenagers, but the un­til-death-do-us part kind of love. He was 17.

Es­cap­ing the din of mu­sic and beer-drinkers at a party in 2008, the high school se­nior stepped out­side for a cig­a­rette. Re­nata Mat­lock fol­lowed him out. When they kissed, he knew he loved her.

“Sparks and fire­works. That stuff is real,” Matthew, now 27, said. “I felt scared in a way be­cause I thought I was too young to know what a love like that was.”

Now, he haunts the places they used to fre­quent, con­tem­plat­ing the things he couldn’t pro­tect her from.

They met in ninth grade, when Matthew walked through the hall­ways of Beebe High School, past the red

lock­ers and into a Span­ish class Re­nata was also tak­ing.

They started dat­ing that year. She was the younger sis­ter of one of his best friends, so they kept the re­la­tion­ship quiet in the be­gin­ning.

But the kiss at the party sealed the deal.

Re­nata liked to read. She liked car shows. She saw qual­i­ties in Matthew no one else could see, and he says she made him into the man he is to­day.

“I was some­thing dif­fer­ent when I was younger, but some­how she could see some­thing else in me that I couldn’t,” Matthew said. “She could see the real me that I didn’t even know was in me.”

He liked to smoke, drink and party. He got into trou­ble at school as a teenager for “just be­ing re­bel­lious,” but he changed for Re­nata, for their fam­ily.

She had a se­cret, goofy side and would sing and dance when no one else was around. Danc­ing was some­thing the two of them liked to do to­gether. He would push the cof­fee ta­ble aside and dance with her, spin­ning her across their liv­ing room floor, her long, black hair sway­ing be­hind her.

Any­time Ed Sheeran’s “Think­ing Out Loud” came on the ra­dio, they would stop wher­ever they were and dance, even if Matthew had to pull the car over to do it.

The small two-bed­room rental they shared in Beebe, per­pet­u­ally dec­o­rated for Christ­mas, is filled with photos of them and their daugh­ter, Karma.

A snap­shot of Re­nata in scrubs, smil­ing with her grad­u­at­ing class af­ter she got her nurs­ing and ra­di­ol­ogy cer­tifi­cate is framed in their bed­room.

A pic­ture of Karma, giv­ing the cam­era a toothy grin in her kinder­garten grad­u­a­tion robes, hangs above the TV.

Matthew keeps a stack of the yel­low sticky notes Re­nata would leave in his lunch­box, ad­dressed with pet names and full of in­side jokes and pleas for him to hurry home to her.

He al­ways hur­ried home to her and dreaded go­ing to work be­cause he would be away from her.

He be­came fiercely pro­tec­tive of Re­nata, buy­ing a gun to guard against in­trud­ers and set­ting up a mo­tion-sen­si­tive cam­era that sent a no­ti­fi­ca­tion to his phone any­time some­one ar­rived at the door.

They dreamed of leav­ing Beebe and mov­ing to New York. But forces Matthew couldn’t pro­tect Re­nata from ripped apart the life they shared in their two-story red­brick house.

BUILD­ING A LIFE

Af­ter high school, Matthew moved to Hous­ton to study au­to­mo­tive tech­nol­ogy. Re­nata wasn’t far be­hind. She had stayed in Arkansas to be near her doc­tor and fin­ish high school. He wanted to gain enough ed­u­ca­tion to sup­port a grow­ing fam­ily.

In 2009, while Re­nata was still in Arkansas, she gave birth to Karma. Matthew got pulled over twice, speed­ing to get to the hos­pi­tal. When Re­nata grad­u­ated, they moved in to­gether in Hous­ton.

When Karma was born, the photos that clut­tered her par­ents’ Face­book pages shifted from pic­tures of the two of them to pic­tures of the three of them: Baby Karma cud­dled in her mother’s arms, Re­nata grin­ning up at the cam­era. Karma wrapped in a blan­ket, asleep in her fa­ther’s arms, Matthew gazing down at his tiny daugh­ter. Karma pos­ing with cousins, aunts and grand­par­ents — a smil­ing, lanky child just be­gin­ning school.

The fam­ily was close and trav­eled often. New York City, Chicago, Nashville. They all slept in the same bed with Matthew sand­wiched be­tween his girls.

He worked at var­i­ous au­to­mo­tive shops in Hous­ton and Wi­chita, Kan., un­til the fam­ily fi­nally set­tled back in Beebe where he be­came a man­ager at a Nis­san deal­er­ship af­ter two years of work.

“We’d go from be­ing com­pletely broke to mak­ing a bunch of money,” he said. “She never left my side. She told me that she’d al­ways love me. Even if we were broke and home­less, she’d keep lov­ing me.”

The photos of Re­nata in Matthew’s apart­ment show her with an easy smile and round, brown eyes: no eye­liner, no mas­cara, no foun­da­tion. The only time Matthew re­mem­bers her wear­ing makeup was the night he pro­posed.

“She’s the only girl I ever met that she could just roll out of bed and she could just look beau­ti­ful like she just got ready,” Matthew said.

He saved up enough money to buy Re­nata a sil­ver en­gage­ment ring with a sap­phire in­side the band, a se­cret sym­bol of their eter­nal love pressed against her fin­ger.

Matthew pro­posed on Valen­tine’s Day 2014.

Karma, then 4 years old, asked the ques­tion.

“Mommy, will you marry my daddy?”

She had to re­peat it three times, get­ting louder each time and draw­ing the at­ten­tion of the en­tire restau­rant be­fore Matthew got down on one knee and Re­nata un­der­stood what was hap­pen­ing.

Her “yes” came through sobs.

They got mar­ried with­out much cer­e­mony — just a prayer and a prom­ise of com­mit­ment at their lo­cal church. He doesn’t wear a ring. Re­nata’s name is tat­tooed in swirling cur­sive on his left ring fin­ger.

Re­nata had planned a sur­prise cer­e­mony for his birth­day this year on June 7. Her se­cret was safe un­til he found the plans af­ter she died at the age of 25.

Re­nata had sickle cell ane­mia, a rare dis­or­der that forces blood cells to curve from healthy ovals into thin C-shaped discs. She had been sick since child­hood, although it wasn’t un­til about a year into their re­la­tion­ship that she told Matthew this dis­ease would even­tu­ally kill her.

Matthew and Re­nata wanted an­other baby, and Karma wanted a lit­tle brother. But they knew that Karma would prob­a­bly be their only child be­cause the dis­ease had made preg­nancy dif­fi­cult for Re­nata.

Karma liked to help take care of her mommy and told peo­ple she wanted to be a doc­tor when she grew up. Re­nata spent a lot of time in the hos­pi­tal, deal­ing with bouts of pain that some­times left her un­able to walk.

On the day Re­nata went to the hos­pi­tal for the last time, Karma watched Matthew hold her mother on the kitchen floor while they waited for an am­bu­lance to ar­rive. They al­ways tried to take home to the hos­pi­tal with books, movies and toys for Karma, but this time was dif­fer­ent.

While paramedics were get­ting her out of the am­bu­lance, Re­nata flat-lined. She was on life sup­port the next four days. Matthew talked to her, promis­ing to take care of their daugh­ter, as­sur­ing her that he didn’t have any re­grets and re­mind­ing her that he loved her.

“Then I told her, I was like ‘Babe, I’ve never said this be­fore, but you don’t look good.’ All her or­gans had failed,” he said. “The only thing keep­ing her alive was that ma­chine.”

When Re­nata died Dec. 2, 2016, Karma re­treated into her­self. She be­came more in­tro­verted and lost in­ter­est in her school­work, said Brenda We­zow­icz, Matthew’s mother.

Matthew stopped go­ing to work, in­stead go­ing to school with Karma, mak­ing her laugh, field­ing ques­tions from her friends and keep­ing her safe.

He took her to do any ac­tiv­ity she wanted to af­ter school. They ate a lot of straw­berry ice cream, the same fla­vor the whole fam­ily would get ev­ery Sun­day af­ter church. Ev­ery morn­ing, he would style her curly, brown hair; she didn’t want any­one other than her daddy do­ing that.

Things seemed to get bet­ter.

Brenda, 47, stayed with them to help her son heal af­ter the loss of his wife and to be a fe­male in­flu­ence in Karma’s life.

“To take her mind off it, we’d act silly to­gether,” Brenda said. “She would say ‘G-ma, just tell me some­thing funny to make me laugh.’ And I would, and we’d lay in bed to­gether and just laugh and laugh.”

They made plans to build a but­ter­fly gar­den; Karma loved but­ter­flies. The gar­den is now in full bloom, a burst of pink, yel­low and red break­ing up the con­crete park­ing lot in front of Brenda’s home.

Th­ese dis­trac­tions didn’t al­ways work. Snug­gled to­gether, star­ing up at the ceil­ing, Karma would tell her G-ma how much she missed her mommy.

“She [Karma] asked me if I could just stay with her the rest of her life, and I told her that I’d never leave her,” Brenda said.

She was true to her word. Brenda was in the next room when Karma was shot, and Brenda was wait­ing in the hos­pi­tal with the rest of the fam­ily when the 7-year-old died, just three months and two days af­ter her mother.

THE SHOT

Jeremiah Chad Owens, a friend of Matthew’s from high school, vis­ited Feb. 27 af­ter work and wanted to see Matthew’s new hand­gun. Matthew usu­ally kept his guns locked away in a tool­box, but he had the gun out from shoot­ing prac­tice ear­lier in the day and let his friend look at it.

Jeremiah had the gun in his lap when it went off, and Matthew said a look of shock washed over Jeremiah’s face when the re­volver jumped, send­ing a bul­let through the arm of the couch. Stuffing still pokes out of a hole in the tan fab­ric.

Matthew was play­ing X-Box 360 and Karma was in the room, di­rect­ing her daddy on how to play Mor­tal Kom­bat — when to run, jump and fight. Matthew was look­ing at Karma when he heard a “bang” too loud to have come from the video game.

“I was talk­ing to her,” he said. “I don’t even re­mem­ber what we were talk­ing about, but she was smil­ing. And all of a sud­den, she just stopped smil­ing, and I was catch­ing her.”

Brenda heard the shot from the next room. She froze for a mo­ment be­fore sprint­ing out into the liv­ing room to see what had hap­pened.

“I came around the cor­ner, and Karma was all slumped over on him [Matthew], and I knew she’d been the one who got hit by the bul­let,” Brenda said, voice crack­ing.

Matthew left with Karma on the air am­bu­lance, which landed on the Beebe High School foot­ball field, less than a mile from the gravel play­ground where Karma used to play dur­ing re­cess.

Brenda stayed for po­lice ques­tion­ing with Jeremiah. He turned, al­ready hand­cuffed, looked at Brenda and apol­o­gized.

“I’ll never for­get the look in his eyes when he was say­ing ‘I’m sorry’ to me,” Brenda said. “’I’m sorry’ wasn’t go­ing to change noth­ing.”

Jeremiah was charged with first-de­gree bat­tery, which was up­graded to felony man­slaugh­ter af­ter Karma died. He pleaded guilty to the man­slaugh­ter charge Thurs­day and will have a sen­tenc­ing hear­ing Aug. 2. Karma is one of at least 11 Arkansas chil­dren un­der the age of 12 who have been killed by ac­ci­den­tal gun­fire since 2013.

The he­li­copter took Karma to Arkansas Chil­dren’s Hos­pi­tal in Lit­tle Rock. She stayed on a ven­ti­la­tor for six days, dy­ing March 4.

Af­ter doc­tors ran the tests that showed Karma had no more brain ac­tiv­ity, all the fam­ily mem­bers in the room got a chance to hold her one last time and tell her they loved her.

Doc­tors ap­proached Matthew about or­gan do­na­tion. At first he didn’t want to; it was too hard to think that there was noth­ing left, no chance a doc­tor could save her.

“I was just think­ing, ‘What’s one thing that a child couldn’t live with­out?’ All I could think was a heart and that if my daugh­ter was lay­ing here need­ing a heart and no­body would give me one, how up­set I would be,” he said.

He do­nated her heart, and went with Brenda to buy Karma one last dress — for her fu­neral.

Af­ter his “lit­tle an­gel” died, Matthew changed.

“Be­fore they passed away, I used to be so funny,” he said. “I would joke all the time. I was so happy. I was al­ways so happy.”

Now, he ex­plained, flick­ing a cig­a­rette aside, his pur­pose un­til he re­joins his fam­ily is to raise aware­ness about gun safety and sickle cell dis­ease. His thumb hov­ered over a post on the sickle cell Face­book page he cre­ated, the phone screen glow­ing bright white against the wan­ing light of day.

Karma is buried next to her mother, with a space saved be­tween them for Matthew. No grass has grown over the piles of dirt, and their head­stones are still not in place.

Un­til he is buried there, he sleeps be­tween an or­ange dress on the right side of the bed where Re­nata used to sleep and a small set of pa­ja­mas on the left where Karma used to sleep, hop­ing to catch a whiff of their scents.

The apart­ment where Matthew’s girls died is vir­tu­ally un­changed — Karma’s spell­ing test hangs on the re­frig­er­a­tor with words like “the,” “if” and “cat” scrawled in a child’s hand­writ­ing.

A trail of Bar­bies and stuffed an­i­mals winds from her room to the liv­ing room where she used to play to be near her daddy.

Fam­ily mem­bers de­scribe Karma as a lov­ing child with a big heart.

That heart — which had sur­vived the loss of a mother, pumped blood through the veins of a 7-year-old laugh­ing as her daddy tick­led her and ached for a lit­tle brother to love — is still beat­ing in a body three years its ju­nior.

A NEW HEART

Tori Brown was at home in Nashville, Tenn., pick­ing up fresh clothes be­fore head­ing back to the hos­pi­tal when a news story on the TV caught her at­ten­tion.

“A child was shot in Beebe, Arkansas.”

She whis­pered a quick prayer for the fam­ily and left for an­other day of deal­ing with her own fam­ily cri­sis. Her 4-year-old daugh­ter, Nyla Rae Guthrie, needed a new heart.

Nyla had been sick for a long time. When she was just a month old, doc­tors dis­cov­ered that she had atri­oven­tric­u­lar sep­tal de­fect, an ab­nor­mal­ity that causes the heart to de­velop tiny holes.

The fam­ily trav­eled from hos­pi­tal to hos­pi­tal search­ing for the best doc­tor and the right surg­eries for Nyla. In 2016, Tori and Nyla made a 20-hour drive to Bos­ton where Nyla stayed in the hos­pi­tal for more than a month. Tori, a hair­styl­ist, took to find­ing work wher­ever her daugh­ter was.

The next time she went to

the hos­pi­tal was Novem­ber 2016 at Van­der­bilt Univer­sity Med­i­cal Cen­ter, and this stay was longer than most.

“I didn’t ex­pect this time for her to stay five months,” Tori said. “I didn’t ex­pect her to need a new heart.”

Nyla’s heart was giv­ing out on her. This be­came clear one day when her mom had gone to get the two of them food and re­turned to a room full of doc­tors and nurses rush­ing Nyla into surgery.

“They told me, ‘Hey, she may not make it,’” Tori said.

She sat out­side the room for hours, the Wendy’s chicken nuggets she bought for Nyla grow­ing cold in her lap.

Nyla sur­vived the surgery but needed a ma­chine to pump the blood through her veins. Doc­tors put her on the heart trans­plant list.

They waited through four months, one stroke and one set of dashed hopes af­ter a promised heart didn’t work out. In be­tween, there wasn’t much time for Nyla to just be a kid, but Tori did her best.

“I tried to make ev­ery day fun for her,” Tori said.

On March 4, the wait­ing be­came worth it when they got the call — there was a heart that would work for Nyla. The heart ar­rived in Nashville at 3:26 p.m., and Nyla went into surgery. Tori went down the hall with her, as­sur­ing her daugh­ter ev­ery­thing would be OK.

“You’re my su­per girl,” she told the child.

Nyla emerged from surgery well, and it was dur­ing Tori’s pri­vate cel­e­bra­tion that she got a Face­book mes­sage that stood out from the bar­rage of well-wish­ers.

“I think your daugh­ter may have my niece’s heart.”

Tori tapped out a re­sponse, grasp­ing for the right thing to say. She and the mes­sen­ger talked, match­ing up times of events and what in­for­ma­tion they had un­til they learned that it was true – Karma’s heart was now beat­ing in­side Nyla’s chest.

Tori reached out to Matthew, and he went to visit Nyla in the hos­pi­tal, to hear her heart beat. He pulled off the knit black cap that cov­ered his clean-shaven head to lis­ten to the thump­ing of Nyla’s heart through a stetho­scope.

“Nyla just gave him this smile,” Tori said. “She wasn’t scared of him, she didn’t look at him weird. It was like she knew him. They knew each other.”

Matthew re­mem­bers the meet­ing as dif­fi­cult, although he is glad that piece of his daugh­ter is still alive.

“Karma gave some­body an­other chance at life,” he said. “She had a big heart, and now some­body else gets to have that. Some other par­ents get to be grate­ful. One door closes, an­other one opens. My doors keep clos­ing, and I don’t see one open.”

Matthew pauses often when he talks about his fam­ily, some­times star­ing at the door to his house, still wait­ing for them to come home. He uses his shirt-sleeve to wipe the tears that trickle from the cor­ners of his eyes, the same eyes that, like Karma’s, used to crin­kle up at the edges when he smiled.

A small, sad smile crossed his lips when he was in the hos­pi­tal with Nyla.

Nyla now has time to be a kid; she sees the doc­tor ev­ery other week in­stead of twice a week and takes six kinds of medicine in­stead of 13. She loves mu­sic, singing and danc­ing. She fre­quently hosts tea par­ties for her mother to at­tend.

She calls Karma “her hero,” and tells peo­ple how she wants to take care of her hero’s heart.

A part of one of Karma’s wishes is re­al­ized — Nyla has a brother named Bran­don. He isn’t the baby brother Karma wanted; he is older and just fin­ished his first year of kinder­garten.

Also like Karma, Nyla wants to be a doc­tor one day.

“I got to go home, and I had a new heart,” Nyla said, tak­ing a break from ex­am­in­ing a line of ants. “I want to be a doc­tor and grow up like a big girl.”

When Matthew went to visit Nyla, he took her a talk­ing Elmo doll as a gift.

A LIFE ON HOLD

The gifts he saved to give Karma are still sit­ting in the back of a closet, wrapped care­fully in cloth bags and hid­den be­hind his and Re­nata’s clothes. It is a match­ing back­pack-purse set he had once given to her mother, wait­ing to be car­ried to school by a girl who will never start the second grade.

“I can see how he feels ev­ery day, which is hard for a mother to watch her son suf­fer­ing like that be­cause there’s noth­ing I can say or do to make it bet­ter,” Brenda said. “His birth­day won’t mean any­thing to him.”

He just cel­e­brated his first birth­day with­out them, and his mother made a cake.

Brenda made all of Karma’s birth­day cakes, even bak­ing green, pur­ple and pink cup­cakes and form­ing them in the shape of a but­ter­fly for the May 30 birth­day Karma wasn’t there for.

Matthew says noth­ing can make him bet­ter; his mind is trapped in the im­pos­si­ble roles of a fa­ther with no child and a hus­band with no wife.

He is just start­ing to try to find work again, hope­fully at a smaller au­to­mo­tive shop. He wants to make enough money to fund his aware­ness projects, which he feels are tasks Karma and Re­nata left for him.

“No­body could imag­ine how hard this is,” he said. “They re­ally couldn’t. I didn’t just lose a wife. I didn’t just lose a daugh­ter. I hon­estly be­lieve that I loved my wife and my daugh­ter more than any other man in the world.”

Matthew over­saw ev­ery de­tail of Karma’s fu­neral in his fi­nal chance to show the world how much he loved his girl, leav­ing her a last mes­sage in her fu­neral pro­gram:

“You were grow­ing so fast, daddy al­ways put you first and ev­ery­thing else last. Now I feel like the world and time has stopped; the day you got your wings my heart sud­denly dropped. Spread those wings my lit­tle baby and with mommy you will fly. Daddy is on his way … I’ll see you home soon when I rise above the sky!

“With love, Daddy.”

Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette/STA­TON BREIDENTHAL

Brenda We­zow­icz holds a photo of her grand­daugh­ter, Karma We­zow­icz, as she sits in front of the but­ter­fly gar­den they had planned to­gether.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/We­zow­icz fam­ily

Matthew, Karma and Re­nata We­zow­icz stand in Times Square in New York City at the end of Au­gust while on va­ca­tion be­fore Karma started first grade.

Spe­cial to the Demo­crat-Gazette/We­zow­icz fam­ily

A but­ter­fly lands on a flower in Brenda We­zow­icz’s gar­den in Beebe on June 11. It was the first but­ter­fly to visit the gar­den that she planted in mem­ory of her grand­daugh­ter, Karma We­zow­icz.

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