Empty crib, healing heart: Stranger's unexpected gift helps grieving mom cope
Not a day has passed since Valarie Watts delivered her stillborn son in July that she hasn’t longed for him, and imagined their life together.
Still grieving, she was prepared to part with most of the items she had bought for her son, Noah. The white crib, however, was not one of them. Watts, 28, excluded it from a garage sale she held late last month, and hesitated when a retiree named Gerald Kumpula asked to buy it.
With a mix of emotions, Watts relented, selling the crib for $2 after learning that Kumpula, 75, was a craftsman who makes benches from secondhand headboards and footboards. “I was a little bit at peace with it because he’d be making something nice,” said Watts, of Cokato, Minnesota.
Watts shared her story with Kumpula's wife, Lorene, after she noticed the newborn clothes for sale and asked Watts how old her son was. On their way home, Lorene Kumpula told her husband of Watts’ loss. The Kumpulas, who have 15 children and dozens of grandkids, knew the crib needed to go back to Watts — but in a new form.
A week later, tears fell all around when the couple surprised Watts with a bench fashioned from the crib. “It’s beautiful,” Watts told TODAY.com. “I thought, ‘There’s still kind people out there.'”
The crib had been transformed from unassembled pieces of wood in her garage to a memory bench that Watts put in her living room, a spot where she can remember Noah.
“I’m overwhelmed with joy that it’s not just sitting somewhere unused,” Watts said. “Now I can sit in it, hold his bear, think about him if I need to.”
In the final days of her full-term pregnancy, Watts had begun to feel less fetal movement. Noah was delivered by cesarean section on July 22, hours after she and fiancé Jimi Hamblin learned there was no heartbeat. Doctors believe the umbilical cord became compressed, depriving Noah of oxygen, Watts said.
The Kumpulas were moved by Watts’ heartbreak, and they understood it perhaps better than most. Many years ago, they held their first granddaughter, who was also stillborn.
“An unused crib is a sad reminder,” Gerald Kumpula said. “A bench is more of a memorial. It’s part of that sad happening, yet it’s not a reminder like a crib would be, an empty crib.”
He refused Watts’ offer of payment. “It’s just nice to be able to do something for someone,” he said humbly. “It’s nice to help people.”
Watts, who has a 7-year-old daughter, Nevaeh, and is to be married to Hamblin this fall, says the bench is helping her cope with grief. It sits near a corner bookcase that holds photos of Noah, his handprints and footprints and his ashes.
“In a way, when I’m sitting in it, I feel comforted by his presence, even though he’s not here,” said Watts, who works as a baby sitter. “It’s like a peaceful, it’s-OK type feeling. When I feel down, I can sit on the bench and I feel OK, everything’s going to be OK.”
Lisa A. Flam is a news and lifestyles reporter in New York. Follow her on Twitter.