Mother's Day; Young mom and son healing after tragedy

Tawni Watkins and her son Devin celebrated their first Mother's Day together Sunday at their home in Seaview. The two are beginning to thrive again following the sudden death of Devin's young father in a misadventure last year, thanks in part to help from family, friends and neighbors.

SEAVIEW - From her greatest tragedy to her greatest joy, the last year of Tawni Watkins' life has been a spectrum - and being a mother may have saved it.

Sitting in a small house she recently rented, Tawni looks younger than her age. As she says, many people pass her off as being a mid-teen, rather than 22. In front of her sits her eight-month-old son Devin, named after his father, Devin Heitzenrader. The young Devin plays with his toys, toddles around, even stands up and walks some with the assistance of the coffee table. Just an ordinary night for the two - just perfect for Tawni.

"Most of the time it's a lot of fun," she says of her life with her son. "It's really, really hard. I'm not able to do some things."

But she says all this with a big smile on her face, something that gives away the fact that though she may have the desire to do things that other people her age are doing, she has all the entertainment she needs at home in a small, bald, drooling package.

"He's the greatest thing that ever happened to me. I don't know, it's been hard, but in a good way I guess."

Tawni moved to the Peninsula with Heitzenrader in August 2002 so that he could find work as a fisherman. The two met in high school, both having grown up in Ridgefield and began dating steadily, even moving in together at one point. Heitzenrader's parents own a vacation home on the Peninsula, where the couple stayed upon arrival. He found work on a boat, while she became employed at the Bank of the Pacific, Long Beach branch.

Tawni works full-time at the bank. That means during the day she is away from her son. Devin spends most days with his grandmother, Heitzenrader's mother. Other times he stays with a baby-sitter. Tawni says she would like to be a stay-at-home mom if she could, though she knows at this point in her life that is basically impossible.

"I don't like the idea that his baby-sitter's pretty much raising him because I'm at work more than I am with him," she lamented.

The need for money keeps her on the job. In fact, during the last few months of her pregnancy, money was her chief concern. It was only in February that she moved into her own place, after staying with Heitzenrader's mother for about nine months.

Mrs. Heitzenrader, as well as Stephanie Jacques, a co-worker at the bank, are the two people that Tawni came to depend on during and after her pregnancy.

"Stephanie, she's been really, really good to me. She was actually with me when I had him.

"His grandmother has been really good to me. She was a lot of help during the pregnancy. It took a lot of the stress away."

Leaving for work in the mornings without her son has been just another process that she has had to get used to.

"I'm used to it now, but at first it was really hard," she said. "The first two days I cried when I had to go back to work."

She's had to learn a lot when it comes to babies. In fact, she had to learn just about everything.

"I didn't know anything about babies," she laughed with a shy giggle. "I'd held a baby maybe one time in my life when this all happened. I didn't even know how to put on a diaper."

Her pregnancy, as it is with many young couples on their first child, was not planned. Though they weren't ready, Tawni said that the news was taken pretty well by both of them.

"I took a test and I was like, 'No way!' - so I took five more," she laughed. "His dad was out on the boat fishing, so I called his cell phone and let him know. He was just kind of quiet at first and he just goes, 'Well ... happy, happy!'"

Tawni said Devin was very excited about the prospect of being a parent, even more than she, as she was a little "wigged out" at first. It took a while for the idea to even sink in.

"I was scared, I didn't know what to expect."

It's almost dumbfoundingly ironic how Heitzenrader died about a year ago. He lived a life full of danger - bull riding for sport, commercial fishing for profession - and then a freak accident happened.

"When he was doing that other stuff I didn't really worry because he was so good at it," said Tawni.

His undoing in the end was alcohol, something that Tawni said he had been struggling with but was trying to turn the corner on - something he was trying to give up before the birth of their son.

"He did have a drinking problem, and I knew he had a drinking problem, and every time he went out with his friends I would worry," she said sadly. "I didn't know he was going to die ... but it almost didn't surprise me that that was the way. I actually told him not to go out that night - but he did anyway."

After drinking with his friends at a Seaview tavern, Heitzenrader got in an altercation and ended up punching through a window, which caused him to bleed to death.

What followed were months of sadness and uncertainty for Tawni. She had lost her man, the father of her child. Though she received a lot of help from friends and family, it would be this child, this unborn child, that would get her through it all.

Devin Junior looks like his dad.

Its hard for Tawni to look at her son and not see his father staring back at her sometimes.

"It's very sad in some ways because he's missing out on that, he's not going to know his dad,' she said. "But in other ways, its good to have a part of him still here.

"If I had not been pregnant with him, I think that my life would be totally different right now. He's definitely pretty much saved me."

In almost symbolic fashion, the culmination of the whirlwind that Tawni had been experiencing ended on Sept. 11, 2003, when Devin Junior was born.

"It was a bittersweet thing. When he was born, it was the greatest day of my life, but then also very sad."

Even though he isn't here in the flesh now with his son, Tawni believes that part of the man has been passed on to the son. She hopes it will be in his way of life.

"His dad was the kindest person you would ever meet. He would do anything for anybody. I hope that he is just like that."

Tawni said that was something that attracted to her to him in the beginning.

"Yeah, plus he was really good looking," she said blushing.

Tawni says that she knows that Heitzenrader would have been a made a good father.

"Oh yeah, he would have been a really good dad. He was really good with kids and he was so excited about it."

Devin is all talk, baby talk that is. Once he gets going, it's gibberish to no end. Pretty soon he will be talking with real words, walking on his own. Tawni said he is still working on his first tooth.

If you spend any time, even briefly with them, you can see that the two adore each other. The look the boy gives his mom was probably Mother's Day gift enough for Tawni, who observed her first such holiday on Sunday. And she got exactly what she wanted for the holiday - a son.

"I wanted a boy. I'm more of a tomboy," she said, "I like to go fishing and hunting. I don't think I'd do very well with a girl."

But she said she doesn't see herself as the Cub Scout-mom type.

"Maybe like soccer-mom ..." she said laughing.

This has been the happiest year in Tawni's life - it's also been the hardest. That dual reaction is a paradox. She says now she has reached the point where she is starting to put the sad things behind her and move on in her life with her son in a joyful way.

While she will never forget Devin Senior, or stop loving him, she has decided not to dwell in such a heartbreaking place anymore.

"I don't cry myself to sleep anymore. I've accepted it, I'm moving on.

"I'll always miss him and I'll always love him."

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