Living through grief
Katie Peca remembers it as one of the strangest and saddest moments of her life.
She was sitting in a lounge at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto while her mother and other family members took turns holding a tiny white bundle that held her dead baby.
"The nurse brought him to us," she recalls.
"His eyes were closed but he still looked alive. Everyone held him like he was a normal baby."
It was the first and last time most of her family would see Everett, who had died following emergency heart surgery three weeks after he and his twin brother Landon were born in Orillia 18 months ago.
"I just wanted to sit and hold him," Katie said.
" It didn't matter if he was dead. I just wanted to make it last a long time. I wanted to sit there forever."
After an hour, Katie handed Everett's body to a nurse and he was taken from the lounge.
"It was horrible," Katie said.
"I couldn't stop crying. I was red-faced. My eyes were swollen and red."
Nothing in the pregnancy had suggested either one of the twins might have physical problems, said Katie, a 28-year-old registered nurse at Soldiers' Memorial Hospital.
Her husband Elvis Peca, 28, is also an RN in Orillia.
"I must have had 20 ultrasounds," Katie said.
"They were beautiful, perfect babies."
Everyone in the family was excited at the prospect of identical twin boys.
"We had two cribs in the nursery. We had this giant dresser filled with double everything."
They were born after 34 weeks -- three-weeks premature, but not unusual for twins. Everett emerged first, followed by Landon seven minutes later.
Six days later, Everett started to struggle and tests revealed a serious heart defect.
He was flown to Sick Kids in Toronto by helicopter where further tests indicated the newborn had an imperfectly formed aorta and multiple holes in his tiny heart.
"They told us it wasn't an easy fix."
Eleven days after his birth, he underwent an operation that lasted for nine and a half hours, three and a half hours longer than expected.
Afterwards, the surgeon was grim-faced as he told Katie and Elvis that their son had internal bleeding and his heart was seeping blood.
"It was hard to stay hopeful," Katie said.
Gala for Brave Hearts
Katie and Elvis Peca are holding a dinner, dance and silent auction on June 27 at the Highwayman Inn to raise money for the Hospital For Sick Children.
The event is being called the Everett Peca Gala for Brave Hearts, in honour of their son Everett, who died three weeks after he was born due to a heart defect.
"We wanted to do something meaningful and profound in his name," said Katie Peca.
"He didn't get a chance, so we'd like to help other kids."
Both registered nurses at Orillia Soldiers' Memorial Hospital, Katie and Elvis were very grateful for the exceptional care and advanced medical treatment their son received at the Toronto hospital.
Everett's lungs had collapsed and his blood had to be pumped through a large machine to be oxygenated.
While she was staying with her sister-in-law in Richmond Hill and driving into Toronto every day to be with Everett, the other twin, Landon, was gaining strength and doing well in the neonatal unit in Orillia.
"My mother would bring Landon my pumped breast milk every three days."
Her mother, Monica Ball, was also looking after Katie's older daughter Avery, then two years old.
After a second surgery a week after the first, a blood flow problem was discovered in Everett's brain that was causing brain damage. There was nothing that could be done to save him.
A chaplain came and baptized the child and hospital staff made a mould of the baby's foot.
He only lived for a few minutes after the machine circulating his blood was turned off.
"I sat back and watched while they unhooked it all."
The next day, Katie took Landon home from the hospital in Orillia.
She never acknowledged Landon's birth or Everett's death in the paper.
"It seemed morbid to put a death notice in beside a birth announcement," she said.
The first six months were unbearable for her and her husband, Katie said.
"I was super angry. If there's a God, he's either powerless or mean. Who needs either one? It made us run in the opposite direction from God."
But needing spiritual comfort, Katie searched Orillia churches on Facebook and discovered Connexus, a non-denominational church that holds Sunday services at the Galaxy movie theatre.
"The services seemed to talk to us. There was instant friendship, instant support. We knew we wanted to believe in God."
Never a churchgoer as a child, Katie had believed vaguely in an afterlife.
"Now I know Everett is up in heaven waiting for us. Why would he be anywhere else?"
Katie and Elvis have both got tattoos of life-sized baby feet, using Everett's plaster cast as a model. The tiny footprints on Katie's left ankle are bedded in flowers. The two on Elvis's left wrist are framed by angel wings.
"We wanted to make his presence always there," Katie said.
Landon, now a bright and happy 18-month-old, is still too young to know about the brother left behind. For the first 13 weeks of his life he wouldn't sleep unless he could press his body tightly against another person.
"We took three hour shifts sleeping with him on the couch," Katie remembers.
Avery, now three, talks to Everett's baby pictures and asks if he wants to play.
Nights are always the hardest, Katie said.
"I still cry at night when the kids are in bed and it's quiet."
But in an odd way, the pain is her connection to her lost son.
"I don't want to stop the hurting. I feel closest to him when I feel the heartache. I don't resist. I just let it come, do what it's going to do, then let it pass."
She started a Facebook page called "One in our arms and one in our hearts" for parents grieving the loss of a twin son or daughter.
"He'll always live in our hearts," Katie said.