WALLA WALLA — It was impulsive, silly and fun and Becky Fletcher can, incredibly, smile at the memory.
On June 28, her baby’s 6-month birthday, Becky and Wesley Fletcher spied a delicious-looking slice of tiramisu cake in a Seattle grocery story.
“I thought we should have a celebration. And, right there, at the counter was a candle that was ‘1/2,’” she recalled. “I said ‘This is perfect.’ Wes rolled his eyes and said it was ridiculous.”
But for a baby with a zeal for life and who arrived early at nearly every milestone, a half birthday was just right.
The Fletchers bought the cake and candle and returned to their hotel, where they were staying while in town to attend a Mariners’ baseball game against the Boston Red Sox; the tickets were courtesy of Wesley’s employer.
Baby Milo had his first, tiny taste of tiramisu that night, Becky said. “I’m so glad we did that. I’m glad we celebrated he had been with us for half a year.”
It would be the little boy’s only birthday party. After his family’s car was struck in the rear, Milo Jameson Fletcher died on July 1, in the arms of his mother and under the murmurs of his father.
Now his parents are determined their son’s death will make a difference in the lives of other families, Becky said. “I feel like he was robbed of that chance himself. I want to make his life a legacy.”
To that end, Becky is working to further parent education about car seat installation and safety.
So many parents fail to grasp the importance of properly getting a baby’s car seat in place, she explained. “It doesn’t seem like a big thing to do, but it’s the one thing you can control, keeping your child safe in the car. But people are complacent, they think it’s just strapping it in ... I think they say 80 percent are not being used correctly.”
Becky, 24, sees the irony in her mission all too clearly. “I know there will be people who will wonder what we did wrong. I hope not, but there will be.”
Yet Wesley and Becky seem to have done everything right. Milo was safely strapped into his age-appropriate car seat, one he had recently transitioned into and that his parents felt was the best choice.
“I was neurotic about it,” Becky said. “I always double checked it. We spent hours trying to get the first car seat tight enough in the seat.”
Her boy loved his new seat, she said with a smile. “He had more room and I felt safer with him in it.”
Wesley was driving on Interstate 82 that Sunday as the family traveled home to College Place, Becky said. They had already passed Ellensburg by 16 miles and Becky was reading in the front seat. She looked up as she felt Wesley slow down. “All of a sudden I could see a blue and white cooler in our lane, tumbling over and over, beer and ice spewing out it.”
Media reports say the family was in the eastbound lane just before 1 p.m. when the cooler became unmoored.
Wesley, driving a 2007 Mazda sedan, slowed to avoid hitting the cooler and was struck from behind by a Ford F-150 pickup.
That driver, 52 year-old Gregg Broyles of Yakima, and his three passengers were treated at the scene. In the meantime, the vehicle originally carrying the cooler drove on to Yakima and called the State Patrol office. The accident is still under investigation and not expected to be complete until sometime this fall, officials said.
Wesley, 23, wasn’t injured, but Becky and Milo were, according to a news release by Washington State Patrol.
The wait for an ambulance seemed interminable. Becky sat on the cooler that had started the chain of events and held Milo’s foot in her hands, still in too much physical shock to hold all of him, she recalled. “I asked him to hold on. I told him he was OK.”
When a nurse came on the scene and took Milo’s vital signs, though, Becky heard terms that her work as an emergency room receptionist at Providence St. Mary Medical Center had trained her to fear. “No pupil response. Severe head swelling.”
Milo had a seizure in the ambulance as it headed to Yakima Valley Memorial Hospital and continued a downward spiral once there, his mom said.
Doctors also worried about Becky who remained in shock and had a contusion behind one ear and a deep cut on her face. They insisted she get a CT scan. Today the wound is a scar Becky will bear the rest of her life.
Upon returning to the baby’s side, the young mother and father held their only child, listening to Milo’s shuddering breaths.
“I don’t know how long I sat there, talking to him and telling him to wake up, telling him he’ll be OK. I kept hoping we’d be that miracle where a mother’s touch could bring a baby back to life,” Becky said, her voice soft. “Like our love could beat the odds.”
She sensed otherwise, though. “I think I knew when they said ‘no pupil response’ at the scene. My intellectual side knew it meant his brain wasn’t working.”
Despite the emergency department’s every effort, including having a Life Flight helicopter on standby, the Fletchers were eventually faced with the decision no parent ever wants to make — to let Milo go or keep trying what already wasn’t working.
The swelling of Milo’s brain was too severe, the Fletchers were told. There was no response to the treatments.
“Eventually,” Becky said, her eyes searching the ceiling, “I had to get up and go to the side of the room and let them finish what they had to finish.”
When all the medical equipment was gone, save for the breathing tube, Becky and Wesley could once again cuddle their boy. Becky sat on a hospital bed and held Milo, who now seemed heavier than before.
“He wasn’t Milo anymore. He wasn’t there,” she said.
She kissed the baby over and over before handing Milo to his daddy. Wesley cried and told his son he was so sorry, Becky said.
Milo’s big breaths were getting farther and farther apart, growing faint. “Then he didn’t take any more and I knew that I had watched my child die in my arms.”
Becky and Wesley are determined that moment won’t be in vain. Although their own baby did not perish because of an unsafe car seat situation, the couple has funneled much of Milo’s memorial money into the YMCA’s “Safe Kids Blue Mountain” car seat safety program.
There is no way to minimize car seat safety, Becky believes. She educated herself on the topic before Milo was born, researching everything she could. “I just wanted to make sure we were doing everything properly. Car seats are pretty complicated. What I saw people doing versus what I was hearing, it was a pretty large discrepancy.”
She’s heard about parents who lost a child for failure to secure the baby or the seat, Becky noted. “How could you live with yourself?”
The Fletchers are living with the mistake of others, which has served to strengthen the message. “I feel maybe I’m more qualified to be more passionate about it ... to be almost tenacious about it,” Becky said. “Maybe now I have a platform because I can’t imagine having guilt about keeping my child safe after a loss.
“I don’t want another parent to feel that.”
Ultimately, her message is not that car seats are “100 percent guaranteed, but what you do have control over is being absolutely sure you’re using it correctly,” she added.
“If Milo’s story can make sure other babies are even safer in the car, then his accident and death are worth it ... the car seat didn’t save my baby, but that doesn’t mean it can’t save yours.”
Becky plans to put her parenting skills to use again. “We talk about having another baby all the time,” she said. “When you’re a baby’s mother 24/7, taking care of him all the time, to not ... it’s surreal.”
The thought is the light at the end of the tunnel for the Fletchers. “I want to have that joy back in our home. The crying, the gummy smile, the crappy diapers. I’d give anything to have that again.”
Not in place of Milo, she said, but because of him. All the devotion, energy and love that was poured into her son is in need of a home. “Now I don’t have anywhere to put it. I’d love to give that to the next baby.”