Melissa Hicks looked into the eyes of her son, Cody, on Thursday morning and wondered what could have been.
As she cradled his tiny body in her arms, she recalled the moments in late June when he stopped breathing while she was holding his 5-week-old frame.
“He died right there in my arms,” she said as a tear streaked down her cheek, leaving a trail of eye makeup. “I found my baby, blue, lifeless and unresponsive. His life was over before it ever started.”
She revived him while her husband called 911.
That was the moment when Cody’s life ended and a lifetime of what could have been began.
Her husband told her that Cody had a bellyache and was in his crib, but she knew his condition was much worse than that as soon as she scooped him up from his bed. Melissa kept him alive for what seemed like hours as she waited for an ambulance to get to her home southeast of Gillette.
The boy, who now is 9 months old, was only a few weeks old when his father, John F. Lewis III, became frustrated with his crying and shook him. Cody’s tiny brain bounced off of the inside of his scull, causing a subdural hematoma, a brain bleed. He stopped crying, not because he was comforted by his father, but because he was dying.
Days of treatment at Campbell County Memorial Hospital gave Melissa no answers. Eventually, after Cody began to convulse uncontrollably, he was sent by air ambulance to Denver.
She knew something was not right.
In the days and weeks following that night when Melissa came home from work to find her son barely clinging to life, John Lewis refused to admit to anybody that he had shaken his son, she said.
Even after doctors at Children’s Hospital of Colorado told the couple that their newborn son was the victim of severe child abuse, he would not admit what he had done. They told the couple to use their last days with their son wisely. They told them it was time to think about getting a priest to give Cody his last rites.
Melissa had to consider asking a priest to lay hands on her boy and, hopefully, provide a calm end to his short life.
But he didn’t die. Each time doctors told Melissa to expect the worst, Cody surpassed their predictions.
Cody has recovered some — a few days ago he crawled a little — but still he is months behind where he should be. Doctors say the extent of the damage done to his brain may not be evident until he is much older. Today, Melissa clings to the small victories, the little glimmers from her son’s eyes or the occasional coo.
Doctors say that the blood that pooled behind Cody’s eyes may have damaged his eyesight permanently. That parts of his brain that control motor skills were damaged. That the shaking destroyed most of the frontal lobes of his brain.
Eventually, John Lewis admitted to deputies that he had shaken his infant son until he stopped crying. It was Cody’s 7-year-old half-brother who told deputies what Lewis had done.
The boy had the courage to stand up for his infant brother, even after being threatened by his mother’s new husband, Melissa said.
Lewis was charged with aggravated child abuse, a felony, punishable by up to 25 years in prison.
And, in November, the 35-year-old man changed his plea to guilty in a deal with prosecutors that would recommend he not spend a day in prison. It would be a four- to five-year sentence suspended in favor of probation.
The deal infuriated Melissa.
“You’d spend more time for drugs in prison than you do for harming a child,” she said. “Those children need a voice.”
During the change-of-plea hearing, she protested the deal that she says prosecutors struck without consulting her. She asked District Judge Michael N. “Nick” Deegan for a chance to speak. He asked her to write a victim impact statement.
It is a statement that she planned to read Thursday at the 11 a.m. hearing where Deegan would decide whether to stick to the deal prosecutors struck with John Lewis.
Melissa said she would speak not for herself, but for Cody. She would ask that Deegan depart from the prosecutors’ deal and put Lewis in prison for at least five years. She prefers he be locked up for 10.
It would be a voice for a boy who may never have one of his own.
Want to help prevent child abuse?
Melissa Hicks is asking for walkers to participate in the March Against Child Abuse in April. For more information, go to www.facebook.com/pages/Millions-March-Against-Child-Abuse-Gillette-Wyoming/436868326383413.