Through the grace of God, even the tiniest among us can have an immeasurable impact on those around them. Such is the case with Leilani Evangeline-Jillson Tice, born to Katina and Joshua Tice on October 1, 2013.
“God definitely gave her to us for a reason,” says Katina. “She was truly our gift.”
Leilani only lived for two hours outside her mother’s womb, but a year after her death, she continues to touch the lives of those who knew her and those who have heard her story.
“God gave me Leilani, which is the best gift he could have given me,” says Josh. “She changed our lives in so many ways.”
“There are so many people in our lives who have grown in faith because of Leilani. She has had a purpose, oh my word has she had a purpose,” says Katina.
The Minot couple learned of God’s gift to them on Valentine’s Day in 2013. They had long been hoping to have a child, so when a pregnancy test came back positive, Katina let Josh know in a special way.
“I got this little message bottle, and I wrote this little poem for Josh in it. And I put a little trail of roses leading to our room, and then, I decked out our bed with balloons because it was Valentine’s Day, and then I put the message in the bottle on his pillow.”
Because they had been trying for so long to have a child and had been so often been disappointed, Josh says his first reaction was one of disbelief. He hesitated to get too excited.
“My emotions were kind of up and down,” he says.
Katina remembers, however, their joy at their first ultrasound.
“She was a little bean,” she says. “That was great.”
They bought a fetal monitor so they could listen to her heartbeat every night and were so happy that they brought their daughter, Neveah, age seven at the time, as well as Katina’s mom to the second ultrasound at 13 weeks. They watched their baby move her hands and feet, but then noticed that her head didn’t look quite right.
“It was, like, coned a little bit. I didn’t think anything of it because I knew it was the beginning of her developmental phases, but Josh noticed it right off,” says Katina.
The woman conducting the screening noticed it, too.
“She said, ‘I need to go see the doctor. I have some concerns about the baby,’” Katina recalls.
Instantly sick to her stomach, Katina wondered what could be wrong. Did her baby have Down syndrome or perhaps spina bifida? She told herself, in either case, it would be fine. Although a bit nervous, Katina says she felt prepared to hear the doctor’s diagnosis. She was wrong.
“She said, ‘You have a non-viable pregnancy, and your baby has a zero percent chance of life after birth,’” Katina recalls. “It was the worst diagnosis we could have gotten.”
Their baby, they were told, suffered from anencephaly, meaning part of her skull had not formed properly.
“I curled up in a little ball on the ultrasound table and absolutely lost it,” says Katina.
“The hard part for me is that we went there hearing the heartbeat and seeing the baby move, and that is when it became 100 percent real for me. So I was way up here, and then all of a sudden, I was kind of knocked really back,” says Josh.
The hospital staff brought the couple to see a counselor, where they say they were told there was really only one option, to have an abortion.
“She said, ‘You won’t feel anything. We’ll put you to sleep. You’ll be fine.’ Because, I was, like, ‘I can’t have an abortion. I would never have an abortion,’” says Katina.
“I was like, ‘Should we get a second opinion?’ And they said, ‘You can, but they’ll tell you the same thing. It’s 100 percent. Many parents get an abortion in this situation because the baby is not going to live,’” says Josh.
“We were both beside ourselves with emotion, so we just left there, and we were left with a phone number to make an appointment for an abortion. And we’re driving home, and I’m thinking, ‘I can’t have an abortion…I just saw my baby moving on the screen. That’s my baby,’” says Katina.
Amid the tears when they got home, Katina made an appointment to her personal physician, who was at St. Mary’s Regional Medical Center in Lewiston, and went online to start researching anencephaly.
“And I found a couple moms on there, and they lost their babies, but they carried their babies to term,” says Katina.
“So we looked at each other and said, ‘Let’s do this. Let’s go to term.’ Ultimately, I was going to support her no matter what because it’s what she has to go through as a mom, going through the nine months of being pregnant to give birth, but deep down inside, I wanted to keep the baby no matter what,” says Josh.
Katina’s doctor assured her that she could carry the baby to term, and the decision was made.
“I knew that God gave me that baby for a reason, and I knew that it was my job to carry her. And I was the one put in that position. And I saw her hands and feet move, and that stuck with me. I said, ‘That is life. That is not my choice to get rid of,’” says Katrina. “I couldn’t imagine being put in that situation before, but then, once it is handed to you, you just do what your heart tell you, and my heart was screaming to keep this baby, so I did.’”
Their lives have not been the same since.
Katina was raised Catholic and Josh was a born-again Christian, but at the time, neither was actively practicing. Success for them meant something different.
“It was all about making tons of money and being a business owner, and that was my focus, not even thinking about church,” says Josh.
Now, they found themselves full of questions including, they admit, why God had let this happen.
Josh met with a family friend, who is a devout Christian. The man shared a story about a wandering sheep and a shepherd and the steps the shepherd took to bring the sheep back to Him, including, eventually, breaking the sheep’s legs and carrying it.
“It was a huge analogy for me,” says Josh. “This could have been Jesus breaking my legs to come back to me.”
Trying to understand and seeking comfort, they began attending Mass at Our Lady of Our Lady of Ransom Church in Mechanic Falls. There, they say, they found the answers they were seeking.
“We started attending church and listening to two absolutely amazing priests, Father Innocent (Okozi) and Father Sam (Mazda),” says Josh. “I’ve always heard, ‘crazy Catholics,’ but then, we started going, and I’m, like, ‘O.K., these guys are pretty good. It’s not this crazy thing. It’s awesome,' and it’s where I wanted to be. They welcomed us in a way that was, I don’t know, it was phenomenal.”
“Knowing that God gave me her for a reason, I knew that I needed to lean on Him to get through those nine months. Church was my therapy. Every week when I went, every prayer I heard, every song I heard, the homilies especially, all of them, were therapy for me and reassurance that God was with me, and this was meant to happen. It seemed like every single homily every weekend had to do with me. I know it didn’t, but every single homily was speaking to me and Josh every single weekend,” says Katina. “We were at our lowest low, and the thing that kept us strong was always hearing that God is there for you. I was always having that reassurance.”
Josh and Katina say when they used to attend Mass, they thought of it as doing a good deed. Now, they didn’t want to miss it.
“I would have jobs, sometimes, until 3 or 4 in the morning on Sunday morning, going from Saturday to Sunday, and I would be right up to go to church, because it was something we wanted to do now,” says Josh.
“We were thirsty for more knowledge. Every single week, we wanted it. It was our therapy during our pregnancy and then, obviously, after she was born, we didn’t stop,” says Katina. “I had never felt more at peace in my life and, as a whole, as a woman, as I did during those nine months. I felt there was something guiding me along the way the entire time. I definitely felt like He was just holding me right there and taking care of me.”
As the couple grew closer to God, they also grew closer to one another. “It brought our family to a level like no other. Joshua and I, we have the best marriage of anyone I know. I can honestly say that. We just love each other and respect each other to no end. And it wasn’t like that before. We would bicker, argue all the time. We don’t do that anymore,” says Katina.
The grace that came to the Tices extended to those around them.
“She’s affected my whole family, his whole family, friends of ours, people who we don’t even know out here who have heard our story,” says Katina.
Sister Elizabeth Platt , C.O.C., a pastoral associate at Immaculate Heart of Mary Parish in Auburn, first met Katina when she came to inquire about baptism.
“She talked about ‘my baby,’ ‘our baby,’ and ‘God’s little girl,’ just beautiful terms,” says Sister Elizabeth. “I can’t explain it. There was a power over me that I wanted to be near them. I wanted to be around them, to be whatever help I could for them, which most of the time consisted of listening to the story.”
Katina calls Sister Elizabeth her “rock” during that time.
“They needed God’s strength so much, and they depended on God so much and on each other,” says Sister Elizabeth.
Katina says she loved being pregnant, even though she ran into some difficulties towards the end.
“I was just so happy that she had life inside of me,” says Katina. “She moved so much. It was amazing.”
Leilani, a name which means child of God, was delivered at 35 weeks.
“This labor had no pain,” says Katina. “I couldn’t wait to meet her. God was with me that day.”
Although she says she was nervous prior to delivery, once Leilani arrived, there was only love.
“I saw her cute, little, adorable face and her perfect arms and perfect toes. Oh, she was just so cute, and I just fell in love with her,” says Katina. “We held her, and we loved her, and I sang to her.”
Leilani lived for two hours, long enough to be baptized. She died in Josh’s arms.
“She passed in his arms, which was beautiful, too, in itself, because it was like she was passing from his arms into her heavenly Father’s arms,” says Katina.
They spent a few more hours with their daughter, insisting on wheeling mother and baby together out of the hospital after the funeral director had come.
“That was the sad part. Josh was wheeling me down, and he was by my ear, and the things that Joshua said to me that day were just the best gift he could give me,” says Katina. “He kept telling me how proud of me he was, and that, if he could marry me ten times over again, he would.”
A burial gown for Leilani was made out of Katina’s wedding dress. Katina’s mother also bought her daughter and granddaughter identical rosary beads. One set was buried with Leilani. The other, Katina treasures.
Sister Elizabeth was among those who attended the funeral. "There was such a sense of calmness. You could hear the pain, but you witnessed the strength. I knew that they had found Jesus."
After Leilani’s death, the Tices created a Leilani’s Legacy Facebook page and began doing acts of kindness in her memory. “We would present someone with this little card that said you have just been given an act of kindness in honor of Leilani, and it told her little, short story,” says Katina. “There were people in other countries doing these acts of kindness in honor of Leilani. We were mailing out tokens everywhere, and I had emails coming in and letters coming in about how she changed their lives.”
She shared one letter from North Carolina, which told how a woman reconnected with her estranged mother-in-law after seeing Leilani’s story.
“She said that she wasn’t allowing her one-year-old to have a relationship with her mother-in-law, when my mother-in-law didn’t even have a chance to have a relationship with her granddaughter,” says Katina. “So she, immediately just because of our story, contacted her mother-in-law. and now they have a wonderful relationship.”
Katina hopes that if women, especially those in similar situations, hear Leilani's story, they will realize that abortion is not their only option. She says she would be happy to help if women have questions.
The Tices marked the one-year anniversary of Leilani’s death with a family prayer service and balloon release at her graveside.
They remain active in the church, and Josh is participating in RCIA.
“He gave me that extra chance. He gave me Leilani,” says Katina. “We never had faith as strong as we do now, and He knew we needed that.”
Their hope is to someday be reunited with their daughter in heaven.
"Down here is temporary. Everlasting is up there," Katina says. "So, I'm going to do whatever I can do to get there."
They say they put God first in all aspects of their lives, including work where integrity, not profit, is now the priority.
"Every day, I say thank you for the opportunities," says Josh.
He and Katina say they wonder what their lives would be like now if it weren't for Leilani.
"It's sad that we lost our baby, but what she has brought to us is more than I could ever imagine to ask for," says Katina. "She was the best gift."
Photos provided by: Emmie Jones Photography (Black & White photos) and McKenney Photography