In a single week, Chesapeake military family buries one son, welcomes another
By JOANNE KIMBERLIN | The Virginian-Pilot (Tribune News Service) | Published: March 18, 2017
CHESAPEAKE, Va. — On March 7, Louie, age 3, drew his last breath around 3 a.m. On March 14, his brother, Logan, drew his first breath – also around 3 a.m.
Immeasurable grief. Immeasurable joy. One week apart.
“It’ll rock your brain a little bit,” says Josh Vanderslice, the boys’ father.
Faith is the only thing keeping Josh and Laura Vanderslice breathing themselves.
Whatever your own beliefs, this couple is a testament to the kind of conviction that can find light in absolute darkness.
They have – had – three children. Four, actually. Bailey, 11, is Josh’s daughter from a previous relationship. Josh, from the Kempsville area of Virginia Beach, and Laura, from Chesapeake’s Hickory, married six years ago. Louie was born in 2013.
Laura was three months pregnant with their second son, Lennon, when they learned that 2-year-old Louie had a rare form of leukemia.
“I noticed these weird, tiny bruises on his body,” Laura says. “The rest – getting the actual diagnosis – is a blur.”
Lennon was born in October 2015. By then, the couple was practically living at Children’s Hospital of The King’s Daughter’s in Norfolk, where Louie endured round after round of treatments. They gave up their house in Suffolk, moving their belongings to Laura’s parents’ house in Chesapeake. Josh, an Army reservist and helicopter mechanic at Fort Eustis, slept most nights in a recliner at CHKD. Co-workers and civil servants elsewhere donated their leave hours to keep his paycheck coming in.
“People have been incredible,” Josh says.
At one point the Vanderslices made news after a thief stole their bike from outside the hospital. But it was quickly recovered and the transgression forgotten – a speck in a sea of compassion. Strangers donated money to help the family. Thousands followed Louie’s battle on Facebook.
Josh manned the page, mostly to show what kids with pediatric cancer go through.
“I tried to do it in a positive way. Not like, ‘Pity Louie.’ He was not a negative spirit. It was more like, ‘Look how strong he is. He’s rockin’ it today.’ ”
Through photos and videos, people felt like they got to know the little boy – his orange sunglasses and superhero costumes, his hair lost to chemotherapy, his smile shining out from a tangle of tubes, needles and pumps.
“He was so brave,” Josh says. “All he knew was pain, but he never complained.”
In August, Laura became pregnant again. Unlike his brothers, Logan wasn’t planned. By then, the Vanderslices knew the statistics: any child they conceived would have a higher-than-normal risk of developing Louie’s condition: T-cell acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
They could only pray. Josh and Laura aren’t the preachy kind, but religion has long been important in their lives. Now, they managed something remarkable: Instead of withering, their faith grew.
“Everybody says ‘Oh, you’re so strong,’ but we’re really not,” Laura says.
They don't understand. They question why. Many times, they've been a mess. "The reality is that God’s the only thing we have,” Laura says.
Louie’s treatments came to a halt on the last day of February. Prayers for miracles became pleas “that God would just take him easy,” Josh says.
He died at home, two months shy of his fourth birthday. More than 800 people attended the funeral, dotted with orange sunglasses and superhero outfits.
“I don’t even know 800 people,” Josh says.
Four days later, Laura woke up in labor. She and Josh barely made it to the hospital before Logan arrived.
“It’s kind of numbing,” she said the next day, staring at the sleeping newborn in her arms.
She thinks her heart grieved for Louie months before he actually died. Maybe it had to, so she could be strong for everyone else when it was their turn to grieve, and strong for this fuzzy-headed infant now.
“To tell you the truth,” Josh says, “I had a sad moment when Logan was born. He’s not Louie, but he looks so much like him. It feels like he’ll fill a void I don’t really want filled. I don’t want to replace Louie."
Logan even seems to have Louie's temperament. "He's really chill," Josh says. "No crying. Just cooing."
Nothing can make up for Louie's loss. But this tiny, warm bundle embodies the cycle of life. A new chapter. A fresh start.
In his short stay, Louie touched a wide circle.
Doctors will build on his case, improving their chances of saving others. His publicized battle increased awareness, which could lead to more research funding.
Underlying that: A flood of messages from everyday people near and far. They say Louie inspired them, gave them perspective, brought them closer to their own spirituality, made them hold their own children tighter.
If there’s any bitterness in Louie’s parents, it doesn't show.
“He was God’s child, not ours,” Josh says. “That’s how you have to think about it. If not …”
He can’t finish that sentence.
“I'm having trouble sleeping,” Josh confesses. “I have to take sleeping pills. The image of him – there at the very end – is stuck in my head.”
“It’ll get better,” Laura says softly.
Josh rubs his hand over his face and answers quietly.
©2017 The Virginian-Pilot (Norfolk, Va.)
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Josh Vanderslice shows a photograph of his son Louie, at right, undergoing treatment for pediatric cancer as he cradles, at left, his newborn son Logan, who was born to Josh and Laura Vanderslice a week after Louie died.
STEVE EARLEY/THE VIRGINIAN-PILOT