Note: Des Moines Register writer Daniel P. Finney first wrote about Nate Yoho and his wife, Laura, in July, the week Laura died. Thursday, he writes a letter to their now 1-month-old daughter, Caralyn, to tell the story of her parents' love and the unusual circumstances that surround how she came to be born.
You're barely a month old now, too young to read this letter. But one day soon, someone will show you this, and maybe it will help you understand the wonderful confluence of love and hope that brought you into this world on Nov. 26, 2013.
It began with your mom, Laura Brammeier Yoho, a beautiful woman with focused brown eyes, long brown hair and a lean, lithe body from a lifetime of work in the gym and near-perfect nutrition. But her heart beat hardest for the loves of her life, you and your dad.
She met your dad, Nate Yoho, while they both worked at the Aspen Athletic Club on Merle Hay Road in 2007. Your dad played baseball at the University of Iowa and in the minor leagues for the Milwaukee Brewers. He is a hunk with a barrel chest and arms like steel cable, but his strength runs so much deeper than his muscles.
Your mom and dad fell in love. The day they proposed was so special that they re-enacted it on video, and it became a commercial for a local jewelry store. They married in August 2011. If life were a storybook, they would have lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, life doesn't always work out that way.
Not long after your parents got engaged, your mom got sick. She had brain tumors. She fought them off once, but the disease was aggressive. Your grandpa, Robert "Tim" Yoho, is a doctor. He knew how deadly the disease can be.
At one point before the wedding, Grandpa Tim took your dad aside and said, "Are you sure you don't want to wait and see how things go with the treatment?"
Your dad, Nate, smiled that easy, confident smile of his. He replied, "Dad, I love her. And every girl deserves a wedding."
"Right then and there, I knew what kind of man my son had become," Grandpa Tim would later reflect. "I regretted saying anything at all. You hear about children who look up to their fathers. Well, this is one father who looks up to his son."
Before your mom had her first round of treatments, she froze some embryos. Those are the cells that are the building blocks for human life. The doctors told your mom and dad that fighting the tumors would make it hard for her body to carry a child. But your parents loved each other and knew they wanted a baby someday.
At a dinner one weekend, your mom casually mentioned to her best friend, Kara Stetson, that she and your father might look for a surrogate mother. A surrogate is another woman who carries a baby for someone who can't do so on her own.
Your mom and Kara met in elementary school in Tipton. They became best friends in second grade and were inseparable all the way through college at Augustana University and into adulthood.
"It's hard to explain what having a best friend like Laura for 24 years meant to me," Kara recalled. "We were different enough and alike enough to get along perfectly. We never argued. We never got sick of one another. We were like sisters, soul mates and a best friend all rolled into one."
They were so close, in fact, that Kara, who already had two children with her husband, Aaron Stetson, was offended by the notion that Laura would ask anyone other than her to carry her child.
This is a big commitment, Caralyn. Without going into graphic details, it involves sharing a lot of information about your body with people, having to go to the doctor a lot and asking your family to bear with you while you suffer morning sickness and other ills associated with pregnancy.
There were lighter moments, though.
Kara told her children, who were ages 6 and 9, what she was going to do for her friend. Her son, 9, asked a few questions, shrugged and sort of forgot about it. Her daughter, 6, was thrilled by the idea. She used to talk to you when you were in Kara's womb. She told others about your surrogate mom.
"She didn't always get the details quite right," Kara remembered. "She would say, 'My mom is having a baby, but it's not my dad's,' or, 'My mom is having a baby, but she doesn't want it.' We got some strange looks and had to do some fast explaining."
What's absolutely certain, what you should never doubt, is that your mom, Laura, really wanted you. She would have carried you herself if she could have, but her body — as fit and strong as she once was — was too weak for a pregnancy.
The tumors in her brain came back. The doctors did everything they could to help your mom. But she got sicker. She struggled to remember words. It got harder for her to walk. She kept hitting the gym. She fought so hard to be here when you were born.
Your mom's friends hosted a baby shower at your parents' house back in July 2013, about four months before you were born. That night, your mom got very tired. She went to bed. The next day, she was very sick. The disease was winning.
She died July 23.
Everyone was so sad. Your mom was gone.
But there was hope. You were coming. Your dad anticipated your arrival every day. He grieved for his lost love, but he prepared for his new one — you — just as hard.
Think about this: Your dad lost his wife in July, and you arrived in November, the day before Thanksgiving. In that period, he started his own personal training business and laid out plans to open his own gym.
"Both Laura and I worked very hard to be in a position where we could support Caralyn and give her security from the day she arrived," your dad said. "I'm very much a motivated person who sets goals and goes after them."
You were born about noon on Nov. 26. You weighed 7 pounds, 8 ounces and were 21 inches long. You were the biggest baby your surrogate mom, Kara, ever carried. And you came out with a lot of dark brown hair, just like your mom's.
You quickly landed in the arms of your dad. And he took to being a father as naturally as he roamed the outfield when he was a ballplayer.
"If there's anybody who has the strength to do this right, to raise Caralyn the way Laura would have wanted, it's Nate," Kara said.
Your dad has had plenty of help. Your grandparents, Tim and Donna Yoho, moved in to your dad's Grimes town home for a while. They help where they can, but your dad is running the show.
"Sometimes he kicks us out for a while," your Grandpa Tim remembered.
You and your dad lived with your surrogate, Kara, and her husband, Aaron, for a few days after you were born. And your other set of grandparents, Doug and Lenore Brammeier, visit every few weeks from Wilton. They've been doing a lot of driving. Your aunt and uncle had a baby girl, your cousin, just a few weeks before you were born.
Everyone really misses your mom, Caralyn. The hurt is still fresh. She was young and beautiful and strong. And then she was gone. But you came along.
Oh, you weren't a replacement, not at all. You were you, a whole new person, part your dad, part your mom. Loved by all. But your arrival helped ease the grief.
"It helps having her here," your Grandma Lenore said. "You'll never get Laura back, but you get a little bit of her in her daughter."
Caralyn, your mom died before you drew your first breath. That's not fair. But you will know her. Your dad has videos. Your grandparents have pictures and stories. And your surrogate mom, Kara, she's got stories, too. You'll have to be a little older to hear the ones from college.
Nobody will ever take the place of the mom you didn't get to meet. But these kind, selfless people are going to make sure you have everything your mom would have wanted you to have.
And what she wanted you to have more than anything in this world is love and hope. The next time you're at a family gathering, take a look around at the faces of all these people who helped get you here.
That's when you'll see and feel your mom the most.
Daniel P. Finney