Late summer / early fall of 2016.
Erica, Isabella, and I were wholeheartedly engaged in pursuing healing, wholeness, and growth.
This meant staying plugged into the counseling and grief therapy, as well as staying involved and connected with our church. Every opportunity for training and personal development was another chance for us to grow stronger as a family, further heal, and sharpen the vision that God had placed on my heart.
As we continued to grow, something new and joyful was about to take place.
The seasons changed, and the cool dampness of the Hampton Roads autumn slowly gave way to winter’s frosty touch. The holiday season was in full splendor; the sights, sounds, and smells of Thanksgiving and Christmas filled the air. With the joy and celebration came a lingering sadness – it was yet another season of festivity and family, which echoed from the silence left by Elizabeth.
Isabella, our youngest daughter, missed her big sister so much. She looked up to Elizabeth…she admired Elizabeth…she aspired to be Elizabeth in so many ways.
For over 18 months Erica and I had been so focused on healing and keeping our sanity, that we had nearly forgotten about the secondary and tertiary effects caused by Elizabeth’s passing; foremost of which was the fact that Isabella had been left as an only child. Isabella’s best friend and big sister was gone – and she felt all alone.
Erica and I could see and sense that loneliness. We were used to having two children to raise and care for, yet with Elizabeth gone, we all felt like we were trying to walk with only one leg and no crutches.
It was around this time that Erica started talking about having another child, but I had a lot of trepidation and uncertainty about bringing another life into this world. My heart still hurt, and I wasn’t sure if it had enough room for another baby or if I could ever love another child again.
Even though I had a lot of uncertainty about the whole idea of having another baby, I knew deep down inside that Erica was right. So, as the winter of 2016 drew to a close and 2017 began, the dawn of a new era was ushered into our lives.
February has always been a significant month for our family. Not only do Erica and I celebrate our wedding vows within the first week of the month, but within a couple of days of our anniversary is Elizabeth’s birthday.
As the first week of February passed, Erica and I celebrated our nineteenth anniversary, which was followed by the emptiness and pain left behind by Elizabeth’s birthday, who would have been 17 years old.
That was our second birthday without her, and it was just as painful as the year before. It also served as a reminder that this was going to be our ‘new normal’. Elizabeth was on the other side of eternity, but here on this side of the invisible veil, time continues to track forward.
The gravity of that reality echoed with me for several days. In my soul I knew that to properly heal and step into the purpose God had laid out for us, we needed to move forward, and that allowed me to open my heart and arms to another child.
One evening, towards the end of the month, Erica had some news to share with me. “Matthew…I took a test, and just to make sure, I took two more. We’re going to have another baby.”
My heart and mind swirled with emotions. ‘Wow! That was fast’, I thought to myself. “Really honey…are you sure?”, I asked with a puzzled look on my face. We had barely started talking about having another baby, I certainly didn’t think it was going to happen this quickly.
“Yup…I took all three tests, and they all said the same thing. I also know what my body is telling me, and it says I’m pregnant.”
In the days which followed this fantastic news, the reality of it all sank in, and as the joy from the prospect of having another child welled up, part of my heart also ached. I felt guilty about the happiness I was feeling. In some strange way, I thought I was being untrue to the memory of Elizabeth. ‘Nothing and no one can ever replace you, sweetie’, I would think to myself. Tears would well up in my eyes as I quietly whispered, ‘You’ll always be my little baby and princess…I miss you so much…I wish you were still here’.
One afternoon, about two weeks after Erica told me the news of having a baby, I was driving my truck to the dump to do my weekly trash disposal. As I was driving along, a sweet little song came on the radio. It was a song about loving a new child and welcoming a baby into the world. My heart came unglued and the mix of powerful emotions I had been carrying burst out as healing tears streamed down my cheeks, Through the sobs, I began to pray:
“Ok God, I get it. This is from you. Now is the time…but God, in addition to Erica having a healthy pregnancy and a healthy baby, I ask one thing. Please let me have a son. If you give me a son, I’ll raise him to love you and be a strong warrior for your Kingdom. Please grant me the privilege of imbuing your Love, Word, and Law into the heart of a boy who will someday become a man. Help me be the father to him that you have been to me.”
That following Sunday, Erica and I added to the announcements list, which our pastor friend would share with the rest of the church, the news about us having another baby. As he went through the list of announcements, he paused, looked at the paper, and his face lit up. He looked up at Erica and me and said, “What! Is this true guys? Can I read it?”
I chuckled and told him yes.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I have an amazing announcement to make. Our friends, the Mattera family will be welcoming a new baby, and Isabella is praying for a baby brother.”
Everyone in our church family cheered and celebrated with us. Many of them knew about the difficult trials we had faced on our long journey; they knew how significant and healing having a baby was for our family.
As winter slowly passed, the prospect of having another life in our home was becoming more real. Isabella was actively believing and praying for a little brother. Erica and I secretly prayed the same prayer. A little boy meant so much on so many different levels. After the passing of my little brother Benjamin in 2004, I was the last male descendant of my father, Michael. That meant that unless I had a son, my father’s direct bloodline ended with me.
Once a week, Erica would go into the doctor’s office for an ultra-sound and checkup. The anticipation grew with each passing week; the heartbeat was strong, and the baby was growing at a steady, healthy rate, but we still didn’t know if we were having a boy or a girl. Nearly every night, I prayed that in addition to the baby being healthy, that God would bless me with a son.
Sometime around mid-May, Erica went in for another ultrasound. This time it was going to be a more detailed and lengthy process, partially so we could discover if we were having a boy or girl. Erica arrived at the doctor’s office about 15 minutes before me. I left work early so I could meet her for the appointment.
It was exceptionally warm that day; the sun shone brightly, and there wasn’t a cloud in the sky; it was as if nature decided to skip the rest of spring and jump right into summer. As I pulled my truck into the parking lot and walked towards the doctor’s office, my heart was pounding; I was nervous and excited.
I walked into the main medical building, met Erica in the doctor’s office, and the ultrasound technician greeted us. Soon we were settled in the exam room, and the procedure was underway.
First, we got to hear the baby’s heartbeat. Everything was strong and healthy. Then the technician asked if we wanted to know if we were having a boy or a girl. Time seemed to slow down. This was it…the moment I’d find out if we would be buying pink or blue; but more than that, I was going to find out if my last name would be passed on.
“Well, it looks like you guys are having a boy,” the ultrasound technician suddenly said. I could hardly believe my ears. “Are you sure?”, I asked in disbelief. “Are you sure we’re having a boy…how do you know?”
The technician chuckled and pointed to the screen. “Right here, see… it’s a boy.” My eyes became misty. I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. A boy…I was going to have a boy! So many feelings and thoughts ran through my mind. I thought about all the years I grew up without a dad. I was going to have the chance to be a daddy to a son and teach him everything I wish my dad had taught me. I was going to raise a little boy and watch him become a man – a man of honor, integrity, courage. Most of all, I was going to teach him about our Heavenly Father.
When the ultrasound appointment ended, Erica and I both walked towards the elevator to leave. As I walked Erica to her car, she asked, “So how do you feel? You’re going to have a little boy; isn’t that exciting?”
I was beaming from ear to ear; my face hurt from smiling so much. I could barely contain my joy, “Exciting??? You bet it’s exciting honey…I still can’t believe it! I’m gonna have a son!”, I exclaimed.
Erica opened her car door and started the ignition. I leaned over and gave her a kiss. “I love you, honey…everything is gonna be just fine…I can feel it”, I said as a sense of ease and confidence washed over me. Erica smiled back and said, “I know love. I’ll see you back at the house. Oh, and don’t forget to call your folks and tell them the good news.”
“Oh my gosh, that’s right. I’ve got to call my family back up in Rhode Island. They’re gonna love the hearing the happy news”, I replied. “I better run…I’ll call them while I’m on the way to the store.”
I helped Erica shut the car door and blew her a kiss as she pulled away. I walked back to my truck and headed to the grocery store to pick up stuff for that night’s dinner. I was so excited…who was I going to call first? I thought about it for a few moments and decided that the first person I should call is my grandmother, Nanny. Every loss in our family was her loss as well. She had lost two sons, a grandson, a granddaughter, and a great-granddaughter to the same self-harm and self-destruction. This time, instead of grieving another tragic loss, we were going to celebrate a new life and a new beginning. Adding to that joy was the fact that my father’s line and lineage lived on.
Nanny and I spoke for a few minutes, and during that conversation, I could hear the smile on that sweet lady’s face. After I talked to Nanny, I called my oldest uncle. He had also been affected by the same losses in our family. My uncle was thrilled when he heard the good news. After everything that happened in our family, after all the heartbreaking loss, there was a promise of renewed hope. As I pulled into the grocery store parking lot, my uncle and I wrapped up our conversation. It was nice to share the happy news with my family after we had been through so much.
I parked the truck and went into the store. As I finished my last bit of shopping, I took a quick stroll through the kid’s toy section and went straight to the area where all the boy’s toys are – trucks, cars, action figures, jet planes, and cap guns. There were creepy critters like rubber snakes and plastic spiders along with fierce dinosaurs and lions. All the toys, I used to like when I was a kid, were there. As much as times change, some things still remain the same. All of these classic toys were just like how I remembered them from over 30 years ago.
There were so many toys, I wasn’t sure where to start. That’s when I saw the little pocket-size cars and trucks. I used to love these when I was a little boy. I’d spend hours playing with them, setting up races and roads outside in the dirt. I’ve been a ‘car nut’ since I was a kid; it’s in the blood. My grandfather Papa owned a car dealership when I was young, and it was in the family for years. Automobiles are part of our DNA.
As soon as I saw those little toy cars, I knew I had to get them for my boy. These would be the first things that we’d bond over as father and son. So, as I looked at all the different colors, makes, and models of these miniature vehicles, I picked each one individually, based on what I used to play with. Muscle cars with flames, exotic racers with pinstripes, and 4×4 trucks with knobby tires. By the time I was done, I must have at least two dozen cars and trucks in the basket.
My soul swelled with joy and hope – all the right things which were missing from my childhood were going to be given to my son. At that moment, standing there in the store, with little toy cars in my hand, I determined in my heart, that he was going to get all the fatherly love, guidance, and mentorship I never had growing up. The reset button had been pressed, and we’d crossed into the horizon of a new chapter dedicated to building a legacy of hope, purpose, and life.
Losing my dad to suicide, and then growing up without any fatherly direction, had a massive impact on my life. I felt abandoned, adrift, and alone. 20 years later, when my little brother died from alcohol poisoning, those feelings deepened and spiraled into a dark, angry place. In the late fall of 2007, when Erica and I found out that we were having another girl, I questioned God.
During that time I was at the height of my internal conflict with Him because of all the painful feelings I was wrestling with. I used to think to myself, ‘I already had a daughter. Didn’t God see that I needed a son to connect with, raise, and pass on my name to?’
But when Isabella was born in April of 2008, she captivated my heart. Everything about her was perfect, sweet, innocent, precious, and priceless. The time for a son had not yet come to pass. There was still much ahead of our family, and the road we’d end up traveling would take us through very painful territory. In the things which unfolded on that journey, God knew we would need Isabella. He knew that our home would require that sweet special presence that only a little girl can bring.
So, we didn’t have a boy until several years later. It would be after Erica, and I suffered the hardest most horrific blow any parent could bear – the death of a child.
Despite having to navigate a loss, that words can hardly describe, this was the appointed time and season for God to give us a son. After I had faced my darkest hour, experienced so much heartbreak, and seen so much pain – after I had seen my own daughter taken from me the same way my dad’s life was stolen – that’s when I was ready to embark on the journey of raising a boy into a man.
I was ready to train a mighty warrior and leader for God and His Kingdom.
I was ready to build a legacy.