Four years ago, Anthony and Kristen Bencomo learned they were expecting.
They were thrilled. Their first.
They told everyone. Debated names. Enrolled in Lamaze classes.
Kristen kept doctor appointments. Marveled at her budding baby bump. Wondered why she never felt a kick. Endured headaches. Spiking blood pressure. Nerves?
Complications. Time to deliver.
Too soon?! No choice.
Doctors performed a C-section. Hooked the tiny thing to a ventilator. More tubes and wires than baby.
After a dozen whirlwind days in the Florida Hospital neonatal intensive-care unit, life finally slowed to a pause.
Anthony at last could hold his little girl.
Born at 26 weeks, she was shorter than a ruler, lighter than a loaf of bread and so thin he could slide his wedding ring over her hand and up to her shoulder.
Her premature arrival had shifted life into fast-forward for the Orlando couple. She was born before his mother could throw the nursery-rhyme-themed baby shower she had planned, and before Anthony could decorate her nursery's walls with Mother Goose rhymes.
Anthony held her, admiring her blue eyes, stroking the island of brown peach fuzz rising from a sea of wrinkled pink skin.
She was beautiful.
Goodbye, Gabriella Grace.
In the end, her tiny lungs and heart weren't ready.
And the Bencomos weren't ready for the wave of grief that swept in when, less than two weeks after she entered the world, their "Gabi" left it.
"It's not a game of pain Olympics in terms of who's lost the most," says Anthony, 33, a recruiter with Lockheed Martin. "The loss of a child is the loss of a child, whenever it happens. You're not supposed to outlive your child."
Yet, too many parents do from stillbirths and miscarriages. And then there are those who lose a child because of other circumstances, such as Kristen, who was cursed with a genetic defect that can cause pregnancy complications.
Once Gabi passed, the couple knew they needed to commune with people who grasped their private pain. They found a support group at Florida Hospital, H.E.A.L. — Helping Endure Infant Loss.
Talking helped. But for Kristen, 31, actions spoke louder than words. The Florida Hospital speech therapist searched the Internet for ways to remember kids gone too soon. Nothing seemed right until she came across Christmas Box Angel.
It was something she remembered reading about in The Christmas Box, Richard Paul Evans' bestselling book about a woman who grieves for her child at the foot of an angel statue. When Evans learned grieving parents were seeking out the statue to mourn he commissioned a new statue after the original was believed to have been destroyed. It was dedicated in Salt Lake City on Dec. 6, 1994 — Dec. 6 being the date the child in the book died.
The response to the statue spawned a movement. Since then, grass-roots groups have raised money and erected Christmas Box angels, which also have come to be known as "Angels of Hope" in 99 spots across the country, including six in Florida, with another 30 committees actively working to get an angel.
The Bencomos hope to bring one to Central Florida.
The 4-foot-3-inch-tall bronze statue costs $14,500. Figure another $3,000-$6,000 for the base. Then, there's the cost of the land.
The Bencomos started the ball rolling in 2008. They recruited a small committee, including psychotherapist Gary Vogel, founder of the HEAL support group, a dad who wept over a stillborn daughter two decades ago.
In March, Altamonte Springs officials donated space for the Angel of Hope at Sunshine Park.
Now, they need cash. So far, the group, Angel of Hope of Central Florida, Inc. has raised $13,500.
The hope is to have the statue in place by Dec. 6. That way, they can join in the annual candlelight vigil that's held around Christmas Box Angel monuments at 7 p.m. for anyone who has lost a loved one.
If you are interested in contributing to the cause, you can visit angelofhopecfl.blogspot.com or contact Angel of Hope of Central Florida Inc. at P.O. box 2323, Sanford, FL 32772-2323.
Even now, when he looks at their second daughter, Bella, who is 2, Anthony imagines life with Gabi, who would be 4.
The Bencomos know that not even a bronze angel that sprang from the heavenly hands of Michelangelo is going to restore their tiny angel to her rightful place in their arms. But as Anthony says, "everyone who loses a child is part of this unnamed club, a club no one wants to belong to. We just want to be able to do something not just to help ourselves, but anybody else through the grieving process. It's the little things you can do to help remember your child."
Darryl E. Owens can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5095.