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Heart and soul: Tragedy strikes Arkansas family

Husband’s, daddy’s love an ever-fixed mark by Ginny Monk | July 9, 2017 at 4:12 a.m. | Updated July 10, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.
Brenda Wezowicz holds a photo of her granddaughter, Karma Wezowicz, as she sits in front of the butterfly garden they had planned together.

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."

Photo by 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 2016 while on vacation before Karma started first grade.
Photo by 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 butter!y to visit the garden that she planted in memory of her granddaughter, Karma Wezowicz.

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 red-brick 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."

SundayMonday on 07/09/2017

About sickle cell disease

About 100,000 Americans suffer from sickle cell disease, although millions around the world have it, according to estimates from the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The sickle shape of red blood cells caused by sickle cell disease die earlier and can get clogged in small blood vessels.

Women with sickle cell disease tend to have more problems with pregnancy, including pain episodes and increased risk of delivering a premature or low birth-weight baby.

Most people with sickle cell disease start showing symptoms at about 5 months old. The only sure solution is a bone transplant, which can have complications and may lead to death, although there is medication that can alleviate or reduce complications of the disease.

Mortality rates for children with sickle cell are down significantly, and the average life expectancy of someone with sickle cell is 42 years for males and 48 years for females, according to a report from the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

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