OKLAHOMA CITY — Keri Young locked eyes with her husband as they stood amid the starting line chaos of the children’s marathon with their two-year-old.
“I’m probably going to cry through the whole thing,” she said.
He nodded knowingly.
“I haven’t cried for 48 hours,” she said. “I’m due.”
When the family decided months ago to do the kids’ event at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, the plan involved a fourth family member. Keri was pregnant and still would be on race day, so she and husband, Royce, wanted their hometown race to be their first with their newest addition.
Instead, it was in honor of her.
On a day when thousands ran to remember the victims of the Oklahoma City bombing, the Youngs ran to remember their daughter, too. This wasn’t what they had planned. This wasn’t even close to what they had had wanted.
Little about the past nine months has been.
You may have heard the Youngs’ story. Royce covers the Thunder for ESPN, and in recent months while chronicling Russell Westbrook triple doubles and Houston playoff woes, he has also written openly and honestly on several occasions about their pregnancy gone awry.
But even in the raw, painful emotions that only got worse in recent days, Keri and Royce knew they had to be there that morning.
“This race, it means a lot to me,” Keri told The Oklahoman. “There is a hope here. There really is.”
She knows firsthand.
In 2013, she ran the marathon only three weeks after a miscarriage, then a year later ran the half marathon while she was pregnant with their son, Harrison. In 2015, he was in the jogging stroller as Keri and Royce ran the 5K.
After being part of a relay team last year, Keri thought it only fitting to do the children’s marathon this year with Harrison and complete all five races in five consecutive years.
That decision seemed even more fitting last fall when she found out she was pregnant. Her due date was early May, and when she looked up the date of the Memorial Marathon, she knew she would be cutting it close.
Still, she figured she could walk a mile 39 weeks pregnant.
But then when Keri and Royce went in for their 19-week ultrasound, they received devastating news. Their baby had a rare birth defect called anencephaly. Instead of learning the sex of their baby that day, they found out that their little girl had a condition that was “incompatible with life.”
Anencephaly affects the brain’s frontal lobe. It doesn’t develop — at all — and it leaves the baby with no chance of survival.
Keri and Royce decided they wanted to carry the baby to full-term. They knew she wouldn’t live but maybe her donated organs could help someone else do just that.
They gave her a name.
It means “giver of life.”
For months, Keri and Royce planned for Eva’s birth, life and death, all of which would likely happen in a single day. She might live seconds or minutes or maybe even a few hours, but the uncertainty ended there.
“We knew she wasn’t going to survive,” Keri said. “That was never something that we thought. We never thought we would bring her home. But we wanted to do as much with her as we could.”
That went beyond hoping that some of her organs might live on in others. Even as their transplant team feverishly planned for May 2 and the scheduled C-section delivery, Keri and Royce tried to do some normal things with their little girl. They went to see “Beauty and the Beast” because that’s what parents do with their daughters.
Same goes for doing the kids’ marathon.
“This was supposed to be the last big checkmark before we got ready for Tuesday’s delivery,” Royce said.
Keri said: “We wanted it. Selfishly, we wanted it.”
Then a few weeks ago on a Sunday afternoon, Keri realized she hadn’t felt Eva for a while. She tried a few things to get Eva moving like the baby had throughout the pregnancy.
Keri and Royce went to the hospital, and repeated ultrasounds with increasingly more precise machines confirmed their worst fears — no heartbeat.
“The brain controls your heart,” Keri said, “and hers just gave out.”
Keri and Royce wouldn’t get to hold Eva while she was alive, not even for a moment. They wouldn’t get to donate her organs either.
All their hopes and dreams for their little girl were gone.
Keri was induced, and the next day at 12:37 p.m., Eva was stillborn.
At 12:41, Royce got a text from LifeShare of Oklahoma, the organ donation group that had been working with the Youngs. The family’s doctor called LifeShare, then moments later delivered some unexpected news.
“They have a recipient for Eva’s eyes,” she told the Youngs.
LifeShare had told Keri and Royce that it had never done an eye donation before, even with an adult. But in those moments of intense sadness and devastating grief, Keri and Royce learned that their girl would be the first person ever in Oklahoma to donate a whole eye.
Little Eva would give two.
It will be months, maybe more, before Keri and Royce know who received Eva’s eyes, and it will take even longer to know if the transplant worked or not. But none of that will change the hope that came out of those moments in the hospital.
“That can never be taken away from us,” Keri said. “The memory of that and what we needed so badly at that moment can never be taken away from us.”
Neither can the moments they experienced. Walking hand-in-hand with Harrison. Putting a coveted finisher’s medal around his neck. Getting one for Eva, too. Wearing “IN HONOR OF: BABY EVA” bibs on their backs.
“Where is baby Eva?” Keri asked Harrison.
“Heaven,” he said through chattering teeth.
“Where else is she?” Royce asked, tapping his son’s chest.
“Is she in your heart?” Keri asked.
Keri and Royce know that one day, they’ll show pictures from the race to Harrison. They’ll look at their medals. They’ll talk about what they did for Eva.
But of course, they’ll always want to have done it with her.
“It was definitely not planned” this way, Keri said, “and I wish it was different.”
As Keri and Royce stood in Kerr Park at the end of the kids’ marathon talking about their day and their daughter, a cold, gray morning was suddenly bathed in light. The sun peeked through the clouds for the first time all day.
It felt like a sign.