The little boy with brown tousled hair and a winning smile stole hearts. Ezra Matthews peered out from his father's blog, tubes and bandages clinging to his body. The E man, his parents called him. EZ E. He liked Elmo and trains and rocks, and he had a way with the ladies. He flirted with nurses at hospitals and shoppers in grocery stores. He once ran his hand up a woman's bare leg in line at Starbucks. She laughed when he smiled at her.
Thousands of people followed the blog chronicling Ezra's treatments after his Oct. 4, 2009, diagnosis with neuroblastoma, a cancer in stage 4. Many of them turned out last month at Grace Family Church in Lutz, decorated with Elmo stickers for a celebration of the toddler's life.
He died Nov. 8. He lived for 800 days.
He was the second son Kyle and Robyn Matthews lost this year. The couple's twin sons were born prematurely in March.
One baby, Charley, is now 8 months old. Price, the other, lived only seven days.
While the couple say the past year has been by far the hardest of their lives — challenging their faith, testing their strength — it also has been the best.
"Seeing Ezra grow and learn this past year, I know I was extremely lucky to have been his mom," Robyn said recently in her North Tampa home. "By having him, I found myself. I never knew what I wanted to do. But I knew everything with him. I just knew him.
"And being pregnant with twins, I felt so blessed," she said. "The alternative to not having had Price at all, I would choose this path again a million times."
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A little over a year ago, life was unfolding sweetly for Kyle, 28, and Robyn, 24.
Ezra was about to turn 1, and they had just bought a house with a pool and a peaceful bubbling waterfall. The couple found a spiritual home at Grace Family Church, where Kyle is a worship leader. They were hoping for another baby, and then another. Three, close in age, would be ideal.
Then came the best and worst of times. Doctors diagnosed Ezra with cancer. Days later, Robyn ducked into a St. Joseph's Hospital bathroom with a pregnancy test. Kyle was waiting outside when she emerged with the result: positive.
The Matthewses jubilantly broke the pregnancy news to their blog readers. Soon they would know Robyn carried twin boys. The couple anticipated three boys under the age of 2 at home by summer.
But the twins arrived 31/2 months early. Charley weighed 1 pound 15 ounces. Price, at 1 pound 13 ounces, lived just a week.
Kyle wrote of how days muddled together in hospitals. At one point, the couple traveled between Charley on one floor and Ezra on another. Kyle described the stale, dry air and feelings of helplessness. He struggled to understand God's plan.
"Our strength and faith have been tested in fire and strained to the point of breaking, and I fully believe it's something that in the end will make both more resolute," Kyle wrote.
As Ezra's second birthday approached, the Matthewses planned a party. He had responded well to rounds of chemotherapy, stem cell transplant and surgery to remove the tumor. They expected to celebrate a clean bill of health.
But test results showed evidence of cancer cells in Ezra's bone marrow. In the coming months, the disease proved to be aggressive.
"I struggle to find reasons for this," Kyle blogged. "I wish I could tell you I have unwavering faith which constantly assures me everything will be 'alright' and Ezra will be healed and live till he's an old and ornery man.
"But that is not my state of mind. I know God doesn't always heal — and I don't know why. I prayed with every fiber of being I have Price would be healed, and today he waits for us to see him again in eternity."
Charley came home from the hospital in September with an oxygen tank, apnea monitor and feeding pump. He had survived brain and heart surgeries. By October, Ezra's cancer had spread to nearly every part of his body. Doctors said continued chemotherapy would poison him faster than the cancer.
On his blog, Kyle said Ezra was dying.
"This isn't fair to Ezra," he wrote. "This isn't what a 2-year-old should be doing."
The couple refuse to become embittered by their losses. They want to keep other families from suffering their pain. After Ezra died, they filed to start a nonprofit foundation effective Jan. 1, 2011, with the goal of curing pediatric cancer. They call it "Because of Ezra."
"Please, be changed because of this," Kyle blogged. "Recognize the flawed world we live in, and work to help the ones you can. Really work. Recognize the hurt in this world, and recognize the grace that gives us a chance to still be beautiful."
Elisabeth Parker can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3431.