Carter Shoop returned from a walk in the Indiana woods two days before Christmas and announced to his family that he had chanced to see a mysterious package up in a tree.
His wife, Emily, figured he was just making up a story for the kids. Her opinion was shared by their 8-year-old daughter, Sadie; 6-year-old daughter, Lucy; and 5-year-old nephew, Gavin Mayhill.
“None of us believed him,” Emily would recall.
Carter persisted with the tale the next day and called for them to join him in finding it again.
“He said, ‘We’re going to go look for the mysterious package,’” Emily would remember.
They all set off from Emily’s mother’s house, where they were visiting for Christmas from their own home in California. They came to where Carter reckoned he had been when he saw the package the day before.
“He said, ‘OK, this is about the spot, everyone look around,’” Emily would recall.
As the disbelievers might have expected, Carter was unable to locate the package again.
Then one of the kids spotted what looked to be something wrapped in plastic hanging in a tree, just like Carter had said. The number of purple streamers dangling from it suggested it had been borne there by a number of balloons.
“We figured it was from a kid’s birthday party,” Emily would later report.
Their discovery remained out of reach even after Carter hoisted Sadie on his shoulders. But they found the tree was slender enough to bend, and brought the package down enough for them do the job with the help of a long stick.
“It took us a while,” Emily would report. “We weren’t going to give up.”
On closer examination, they beheld a plastic bag containing two folded letters written in a neat hand on lined paper. One was a single page:
Happy 1st Birthday Ava!!
Today is your first birthday, November 20, 2013. You’re spending your birthday in Heaven. We wish so bad that you could’ve spent it here with us. Momma & Daddy love and miss you more than words could ever explain. The 27 days that God gave us with you were the BEST 27 days of our lives. We can’t wait to come to Heaven to see and hold you once again!
We Love You & Miss You Always,
[a drawn heart]
Momma & Daddy
The other letter was three pages. Sadie read it aloud:
To whomever may find this…
Hello, our names are Cayla & Cliff Lawson and Ava was our first child! This is her story…
I, Cayla, was 36 and ½ weeks pregnant with our precious girl Ava when we went for what we thought would be our last ultrasound. Boy, were we wrong!
At that ultrasound, they discovered that Ava had a very serious heart defect. We were sent to specialists in Indianapolis to find out what our next step would be. They told us that Ava had HRHS & TAPVR, two very serious heart defects. I would have to be induced so that there were no surprises at delivery. I went in on November 19, 2012 and on November 20, 2012 at 4:41 p.m. we welcomed our 6 pound 14 ounce and 20 inches long beautiful girl into the world.
Later that night, we finally got to hold her, right before they took her to the children's hospital right next to the hospital that I delivered in. Ava would need 3 surgeries to correct her conditions, at the least. The first [was the] next morning at 14 hrs old and [Ava] did fantastic! But afterward, she got bad…. They had to do three more procedures on her within the following two weeks. Ava then got very sick with fungal meningitis, which her tiny body was unable to fight off. One December 17, 2012, the Lord decided that it was time to call Ava home. We were blessed with the absolute hardest, yet most beautiful 27 days with our little miracle. We wanted to send this letter up to Heaven with her balloons in hopes that someone, somewhere would find this and get to read a very short version of Ava’s story. If anyone does happen to find this, please feel free to send us a text or give us a call! We’d love to know where this letter ended up! Thank you for taking time to read our story of our brave little girl.
Cayla & Cliff Lawson
Below that were cellphone numbers for Cayla and Cliff. Carter Shoop noted that the package must have been hanging in the tree for three years and he reasoned that they might just be reviving the hurt on Christmas Eve if they texted the couple. Emily felt that the couple would not have included the phone numbers if they did not want to be informed of the find. Her mother, Sally Mayhill, concurred with her daughter, having first expressed her surprise when they returned with the package.
“I said, ‘You mean it was real?’” Sally would recall.
Emily texted Cayla and Cliff simultaneously at 5:04 p.m. on Christmas Eve:
Dear Cliff and Cayla,
Today we were exploring my parents’ property on Marion County’s far northwest border and found the note you sent up into the sky over three years ago. It was stuck up in a tree in the woods. We were very touched by your letter and Sweet Baby Ava and it’s clear she was blessed with wonderful, loving parents.
Thank you for sharing her story with us. She is forever in our hearts, too. God bless and Merry Christmas!
Emily, Carter, Sadie and Lucy Shoop from Piedmont, CA and my nephew Gavin Mayhill, who lives in Indianapolis
At that moment, 27-year-old Cliff Lawson happened to be checking the cellphone he was charging in his living room some 70 miles away in Terre Haute. He saw a text from an unfamiliar number. He read the accompanying message.
“I didn’t know what to think,” he later told The Daily Beast. “It took me a second to kind of comprehend what I was reading. Somebody had found the letter we sent out over three years ago.”
He took the phone into the kitchen, where 28-year-old Cayla Lawson was preparing Christmas Eve dinner for a big group of relatives who would be joining them in the house they had bought and settled into just a short time before.
“Read this,” he told her.
Four years before, the couple had gone for what was supposed to be just a routine final ultrasound test before the birth of their first child.
“Check size and fluid levels,” Cliff later said. “Make sure everything is on track.”
The due date had been a week away and they had already packed their bags and stashed them in the car in case the big moment came a little early. They had decided on the name Ava.
“Nothing symbolic about the name or anything like that,” Cliff would recall. “It seemed like we bounced back and forth on several hundred names and that was the one we both agreed on. We really liked it.”
An earlier ultrasound had found nothing amiss, and had they returned to the facility where it had been administrated, the technician likely would have just checked the last-minute variables their doctor had requested. But that place was closed when they got off work—Cliff as a welder, Cayla at a clinic—and they went to another facility that was open later.
As a new patient, Cayla got a full, comprehensive test, as if she had not had one before. The technician became puzzled.
“She told us not to be alarmed, but she was getting some funny measurements,” Cliff would remember.
The tech went to get a more senior colleague, who said she too was getting some unexpected results. The second tech went to get a radiologist.
“Pretty much, what he told us was, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with your baby, but there’s something wrong with her heart and you have to go see a specialist,’” Cliff would report.
Only this was on a Friday evening and they needed a referral to see a specialist, and their doctor had gone home. They passed a weekend of what could have only been harrowing uncertainty.
“We didn’t know what was going to happen,” Cliff remembered. “We were sitting in the parking lot at the doctor’s office building Monday morning when it opened.”
The doctor went over the scans and referred them to St. Vincent Women’s Hospital in Indianapolis. The couple made the 90-minute drive that day.
More tests by more sophisticated equipment determined that the baby had two congenital cardiac defects that are more commonly detected at the 20-week ultrasound. Hypoplastic right heart syndrome (HRHS) is when structures on the right side of the heart are underdeveloped. Total anomalous pulmonary venous return (TAPVR) is when oxygenated blood is not delivered properly from the lungs to the upper left chamber of the heart.
The doctors told the couple they could just let nature take its course.
“They pretty much said we had the option to deliver her and not do any treatment,” Cliff said.
The other option was to induce birth and perform open-heart surgery on the baby when she was just 12 hours old.
“We said we were going to do anything we could to treat what was wrong,” Cliff remembered.
The doctors told them to go home until they were called.
“They just said, ‘We’ll be in touch with you,’” Cliff recalled. “They really didn’t say anything more than that.”
The summons came toward the end of the week, late in the afternoon.
“The hospital called: ‘Can you guys be up there tonight to be induced?’” Cliff remembered.
They climbed into the car and arrived early that evening. Cayla was induced and baby Ava was born at 5:41 p.m. the following day.
“We didn’t get to do any of the symbolic stuff: cut the umbilical cord or hold her or touch her,” Cliff recalled. “As soon as she was born, they took her. They were in there giving her medicine and doing scans directly on her.”
After about two hours, they were finally allowed to hold her. She was then placed in an incubator and transported by ambulance to Peyton Manning Children’s Hospital a block away.
Cliff spent several hours with Ava that night, but his wife was still in Women’s Hospital and he went to check on her.
“I wanted to make sure Cayla was fine, too,” he later said.
The baby was scheduled for surgery early the next morning.
“They told us the surgery was open-heart surgery like on anybody else; it was extremely high-risk surgery, especially with her being just a couple hours old,” Cliff would later report.
Cayla checked herself out of Women’s Hospital against medical advice.
“Eleven hours after giving birth,” Cliff would note. “We called a shuttle bus and went to the Peyton Manning Hospital. We wanted to go over there to be with her before they took her down for the surgery.”
The surgery went reasonably well, although Ava had some difficulties during recovery. She stabilized after a few hours.
“She was doing pretty well,” Cliff would recall.
More surgeries followed, a total of four in 21 days, three of them open-heart, the other via a blood vessel in her right leg. Ava proved to be a fighter, a world-class champion weighing in at just under seven pounds. The doctors allowed themselves to be optimistic and she seemed to have made it through the worst of her ordeal.
“As she aged, she would have to have two more surgeries, which were routine for this issue that she had,” Cliff recalled the doctors telling them.
Other than that, she seemed to be on her way to being fine. She then had a final scan.
“One last scan to check everything, and they end up finding that she had a blood infection,” Cliff would remember.
A fungal infection had invaded her via an IV line and spread to her brain. The doctors showed the parents a series of scans that presented cross-sections of her brain, saying that the infection appears as white spots and that they customarily see a few scattered in each layer. Cliff and Cayla immediately recognized the severity of the situation.
“There were just countless spots,” Cliff later said. “Three specialists in the room with us, they all agreed it was probably the worst case of fungal meningitis they had ever seen.”
The prognosis was extremely poor even for a fighter such as Ava.
“They didn’t think there would be really any possibility of survival and any treatment that we tried for the spinal meningitis would affect her heart surgeries and do damage to the heart that was just repaired,” Cliff recalled. “They told us that if she did survive, she would have no quality of life.”
Ava would be permanently bedridden, with a feeding tube and a respirator.
“For her whole life,” Cliff would note.
That was on a Friday evening. The couple summoned their kin and their preacher to the hospital over the weekend. Ava was transferred to a hospice facility that Monday, Dec. 17.
“We had everybody out of the room and we took her off life support,” Cliff would report.
A graveside funeral for Ava Marie Claire Lawson was held on Dec. 22 at the New Harmony Cemetery in Terre Haute. Christmas 2012 came three days later.
“That one was very rough,” Cliff would recall.
On what would have been Ava’s first birthday, Cliff and Cayla stood at her grave with a sealed baggie containing two letters, one addressed to Ava in heaven, the other to whomever might chance to find it. They attached it to a half-dozen balloons.
“We wanted it to go as high and as far as it could,” Cayla later said.
They released it and followed it with their eyes as the balloons carried the notes heavenward.
“We stood there and watched them until we really couldn’t see them much more,” Cliff later said.
After several months, they had heard not a word about the package and all but forgot about it.
“We just figured it got stuck in a tree or landed in some river or out in the middle of some field where nobody was going to see it,” Cliff said.
The couple went on to have two other children, both healthy, Rhett, now 2 1/2, and Knoxx, now 15 months. But that did not erase the loss of Ava. They continued to visit her grave on special days.
“We try every holiday and then some birthdays,” Cliff said. “Just take flowers and balloons out there and that kind of stuff.”
Then, this Christmas Eve, Cliff saw the text from Emily saying her family had found the letter, at the far edge of Indianapolis, the city where Ava was born.
“The fact that somebody took the time and effort to do something like that and then to actually contact us about it,” Cliff later said.
Cliff went into the kitchen, where Cayla was cooking.
“We had about 23 people coming over,” she recalled.
He showed her the text.
“I started to read it, my jaw hit the floor,” she would recall. “It was very touching. We were very emotional, to say the least.”
She texted back.
Thank you so much! I can’t believe it made it so far. Would you mind sending me a picture of the letter? You are an angel for actually reaching out to us and letting us know.”
Emily received it and texted the photos. Cayla texted again and marveled at the distance the letter had traveled.
65 miles!... That is amazing! My heart is so happy. The holidays are always rough without her here and this just made the holidays a bit brighter.
Emily replied:We are so happy to make your Christmas brighter. Merry Christmas to you and yours!
Lots of love from the Shoops and Mayhills.
Cayla sent another text as Christmas Eve became Christmas Day.
Yes, Merry Christmas to you all, too.
We are forever grateful for all the effort you put into ensuring we knew what happened to her letter.
She included a photo of Ava.
This was our sweet Ava. I know it is late. I just cannot stop thinking about your message. It made my heart so full. I can’t possibly express to you all how much it meant to us to hear that someone had found her letter, and on Christmas Eve. It’s just been such a beautiful gift. Thank you again. God bless and Merry Christmas.
Emily replied: Wow, what a sweet picture of a beautiful little girl. We still can’t believe he found your message on Christmas Eve. My mom walks those woods all the time and never spotted it! My husband was the one who spotted it. It’s a gift for us, too—thank you for sharing her story with us, it makes our hearts full as well. We’re all thinking about you and hoping you’re having a wonderful Christmas morning.
And now we go from the holidays into the uncertainties of the year stretching ahead with a tale that steadies the spirit, a gift for all of us that Sally Mayhill so rightly described.
“A very sweet Christmas miracle.”