Sunday, December 2, 2007

The Gift: Collecting books for Nate

The books came down the hospital hall in a cart each day. "How Big is Baby?" and "Cuddly Kittens" and "Choo." Vernon and Christa Sumwalt have always been readers, and they'd long imagined reading to their children. So this is what they did with Nate.

David Nathaniel Sumwalt had been born just days before, on Oct. 5, 2004. He was a solid 6 pounds, 7 ounces, with his mother's smile and long toes. He also had an underdeveloped right ventricle, leaving him with half of a functioning heart.

His parents had known of this since an ultrasound early in pregnancy, so Nate was born 675 miles from their Charlotte home, at the University of Michigan's Children's Hospital. There, he had a pacemaker installed at 2 days old, then open heart surgery four days later.

His parents couldn't hold their son, who was hooked to tubes and wires. They took turns letting Nate's hand curl around their pinkies.

And they read.

The books let Nate hear their voices. The reading let them be parents. "I think we were so focused on the medical issues that we sometimes forgot about the little things, " Vernon says.

After three weeks, they brought Nate home to Charlotte, where they gave him 15 doses of medicines daily but also rocked him in a family room chair and took first-child pictures and watched him grow, thanks to a high-calorie diet designed to ready him for a second surgery.

One morning in December, after a therapist's appointment, Nate didn't look right. Soon, there was a 911 call, an ambulance rushing the 9-week-old to the emergency room.

"He couldn't be saved, " says Christa, now on the couch, across from the rocker.

She slides out a scrapbook, and she smiles at Nate's brown eyes, and she nods when asked what you do with a loss like theirs. "It would've been easy, " she says, "to package up that part of our lives and put it away and "

"Survive, " Vernon says.

She nods again.

"We wanted to do more than survive, " she says.

Last fall, as Nate's second birthday approached, they remembered their son with books - more than 100 collected from family, friends and work, where Vernon is an attorney and Christa an assistant district attorney and domestic violence coordinator. They donated the books for the opening of CMC's Levine Children's Medical Center.

This year, they have expanded with a Web site - They have more than 1,200 books, from teachers, from churches, from people they know, from people who left books on their front stoop without a note. "Goodnight Moon" and "Are You My Mother?" and "The Little Tadpole."

"Amazing, " says Christa Sumwalt, who has started taking them with Vernon to Presbyterian Hospital and Carolinas Medical Center. It is, she says, a healing thing, stacking and sorting, receiving and giving, imagining other parents and children, remembering Nate.