Jessie Gorley heard the nurses talking when they thought she couldn’t hear them.
She heard them say her son, Tristin, born six weeks premature March 1, was in the worst shape of any baby in intensive care.
She heard their uncertainty about his future.
She saw the way they looked at her, then a 16-year-old girl, a little more than
5 feet tall and slight of figure, as she peered at her new child through glass and tubes.
“When I was pregnant, people at school would always ask me, ‘What are you going to do?’” she said. “Why would I get an abortion or put him up for adoption when I was the one who put myself here. That’s my baby, what else can I do?”
On Friday afternoon, Gorley, now 17, returned home with her son from a Christmas party at the Moffat County Alternative School, which she attends each morning. She watched the 9-month-old crawl around the carpet, gurgling and blinking his wide blue eyes at the flashing Christmas lights and ornaments that decorated the tree.
Behind Gorley was a tiny blue stocking draped over some Christmas decorations.
The stitching read, “My First Christmas 2009.”
This holiday will be her first with her son, but it wasn’t that long ago that Christmas presents and decorations were the furthest thing from her mind.
It was August 2008 when she found out she was pregnant.
She said she knew without taking a test, but her boyfriend didn’t believe her.
At the Northwest Colorado Visiting Nurse Association, she recalled being beckoned into a room where a nurse talked to her about her options.
“It was never even a question,” Gorley said.
She didn’t let people say the word “abortion” around her when she was pregnant because she was afraid her baby would hear.
While there was no decision to make about keeping the baby, there was a lot to be uncertain about.
Her father has never been a part of her life, and her mother, though always supportive, couldn’t provide for her.
She stayed out for weeks on end with her boyfriend, sleeping on the couches of his friends and family.
“Sometimes we broke into his parents’ church and slept there,” she said. “And I stole food so I wouldn’t starve. There were days when the only meal I had was lunch at school.”
Pregnant and couch surfing, she decided one day to go to the only place she knew would be a safe haven.
Amanda Browning and Gorley had been best friends since fourth grade. As a girl, she traveled with the family and slept there more often than not.
In junior high, the two drifted.
“I went to Amanda one day and said, ‘You should let me move in. My life sucks, and you’ve always liked me,’” she said.
Amanda went home and talked with her family about letting Gorley live with the family of five.
Now, the two are roommates and essentially sisters.
When Gorley moved into the Browning home in November 2008, she inherited a new set of relatives for her and her unborn child, including Kris Browning, mother of Amanda and two boys.
“When Amanda told me, I just thought it was so natural that she move in here,” Kris Browning said. “And when she told me Jessie was 91 pounds and got in trouble at home for eating a can of soup, I thought she should come here to rest and relax. She was facing all that stress, and she’s overcome so many things. Even the way people looked at a teenage mom, it was terrible.
“But she showed all of them.”
When Gorley first moved in, she took food and hid it in her room out of habit and fear.
“Just in case something happened,” she said.
Soon she learned that Kris Browning made sure all of her children got three meals a day, including Gorley and Tristin.
Gorley said she and her boyfriend still were dating when Tristin was born in March, but she never expected him to stay involved.
The couple split up shortly after Tristin was born, but the father still sees his son a few times a month.
Her choice to have the child alone hasn’t been received well by everyone.
When she chose not to include the father’s name on Tristin’s birth certificate, a social worker called her names to her face.
She said the doctors doubted her and kept a close watch on how she interacted with her son, even through the glass at the ICU.
Tristin was born March 1, six weeks premature and 4 pounds 11 ounces. For five weeks, he lived in prenatal ICU in Grand Junction Hospital where Tristin spent the first five weeks of his life.
Gorley stayed in hospital housing and traveled to the hospital every three hours to care for him.
For weeks she wasn’t allowed to touch or hold him.
“He had long gangly arms, and his skin was hanging off his neck because he didn’t quite fit,” Gorley said.
At first, she didn’t want to take pictures of him because she didn’t want to remember him that way.
“He had all kinds of tubes sticking out,” she said. “It was so sad. He couldn’t cry, so when he was upset, he would just open his mouth.”
Gorley still sees her mother every week, who first got pregnant when she was 16, and talks to her sister often, who had her frist child at 19.
Gorley maintains a 4.0 grade-point average and working as an assistant at Bear Creek Animal Hospital.
She’ll start college courses in January and hopes to be a veterinary technician.
Browning knew that her family hadn’t become a replacement for Gorley’s but just an added support system.
“We don’t let people call us his grandparents,” Browning said. “He’s already got a grandma. We’re his big momma and big daddy.”
Browning used to substitute teach, but she now stays home every day to watch and play with Tristin while Gorley goes to school.
Gorley said the blond, blue-eyed bundle in her lap changed more than just her living situation.
She doesn’t feel like a kid anymore and doesn’t fit in with other students at Moffat County High School, which she attends in the afternoons.
“When I came back with Tristin, everyone was really into the stoner/drinking scene,” she said. “Tristin really saved my life. I have no idea where I’d be. I wasn’t doing drugs or anything, but I wasn’t going to school. I was focused on survival.”
She said other students now seem immature and often offensive.
“A lot of times I roll my eyes and say, ‘Kids these days,’” she said. “But really, I’m not a kid anymore. I feel so out of all that.”
As for Tristin, she thinks he’s perfect at 9 months old.
“I keep telling him, ‘You aren’t getting any older,’” Gorley said. “I don’t want him to grow up. He’s my little baby. We play together a lot.”
While the house sometimes seems like Grand Central Station in the mornings, Browning said she wouldn’t have it any other way.
After raising three children, Browning said she had hoped for another baby, though she didn’t know what form he’d come in.
“I had been thinking about adopting because I wanted another baby, but I didn’t want to be pregnant again,” she said. “And then this little bundle came along. It’s funny how God answers our prayers sometimes. He’s been a blessing. He livens up our whole lives. We cannot have a bad day around him.”