EDDYVILLE, Ky. (KT) – There are days when Jennifer Matthews wants to crawl onto Jesus' lap and just weep.
The past year has been excruciating – and not because of COVID – for this family of Kentucky Baptists. Jennifer and Chase Matthews’ baby boy, 10-year-old Owen Matthews, has been in a fight for his life while battling a rare childhood cancer. It has been a year of pain, of hope and of despair.
There have been more bad days than good, more tears than cheers, more bad news than good. But they have gripped their faith tight like a security blanket.
“We’re clinging to a miracle,” Jennifer said. “We are very much people of faith, Christian people. When put in a situation like this, you can’t help but wonder why and question God, even get angry. We are just hoping and praying for a miracle. It’s all that we have right now.”
A loving community has wrapped their collective arms around this family and so has their church family, Charity Baptist Church in Eddyville. The community has prayed for them, donated to them, sold t-shirts, had hair cut-a-thons, benefit concerts and made heartwarming visits of encouragement, surrounding this tough little guy with good wishes and prayers. #Owentough has become a rallying cry in Lyon County, a symbol of faith and goodness as the family soldiers on through this journey.
“I have no words to say how thankful I am for Lyon County,” Jennifer said. “Owen has truly brought Lyon County together in my eyes. Baseball teams, basketball teams, cheerleaders, the road department, cops all have come by to see him. The hashtag #Owentough is out there, people putting signs in their yards. It’s all been so encouraging to us.”
Charity Baptist Church Pastor Mitch Coomer, who is grieving after his wife died unexpectedly recently, said the family has been incredible and faithful in the journey.
“They handle everything with a smile on their face,” he said. “They’ve really brought the community together. We’re a small community and everybody has gotten behind them, the church and the entire community.”
The family’s faith has been shaken but not broken. In fact, Jennifer said, it has been their strong faith that has kept them standing.
“I don’t know how anyone could get through a trial such as this without having a strong faith in God,” she said. “I look at it a year later and can’t imagine how I would have gotten through this without my faith. When he was first diagnosed, I had a sweet lady reach out to me and talk to me. I was in the hospital 17 days when he was first diagnosed. I was angry. We were a faithful Christian family. We tithed, prayed, had devotions, did all that. I was angry and didn’t know why? I also felt guilty for being angry with God. She said, ‘Jennifer, even Jesus, when he was on the cross, cried out in anger.’ That helped me so much.”
Jennifer said she has leaned on her faith most of her life. Her father, Robert Waters, was in the ministry for 25 years. A bout with prostate cancer and complications sidelined him from pastoring a church. Waters did have the thrill of baptizing Owen on Dec. 22. He will be in the pulpit at Charity Baptist on Sunday morning, his daughter said, filling in for the pastor.
And that’s not the only trial for this family. Chase Matthews lost both of his legs while serving in Iraq when the truck he was in ran over an IED. Chase competed with his family in a Wounded Warrior competition the second week of September with Owen doing his part. It was not long after that Owen was rushed to the hospital in Nashville, and they received the diagnosis of a malignant rhabdomyosarcoma tumor in his pelvic area.
What followed was intense treatment and surgeries that required longer hospital stays and some of those happened after COVID arrived, further complicating the family’s plight.
“Only one family member was allowed,” she said. “And we had doctors’ appointments once a week in Nashville for chemotherapy. Some weeks we had to go every day and only one parent was able to go. He had a major surgery in July, a 16-hour surgery, and the hospital did allow special consideration for that surgery to allow both of us to be able to be there.”
Sarah, their daughter, was a senior at Lyon County High School and is now a freshman at Western Kentucky University. She has been there for her little brother too, holding his hand or hugging him whenever it was needed. Her friends have become Owen’s friends. They love him too.
“There’s not a day that kid hasn’t told me or my daughter, who is 18, how pretty we are, how beautiful we are,” Jennifer said.
She described her son as “one of the funniest kids you’d ever meet in your entire life.” Jennifer said he loves baseball, especially his favorite team, the St. Louis Cardinals. First baseman Paul Goldschmidt and catcher Yadi Molani are his favorite players. Molina sent him a signed catcher’s helmet, she said.
Jennifer said last week he was feeling uncomfortable and the hospice nurse raised his pain pump a little. “The next day he was singing and telling jokes and the nurse said, ‘Jennifer, I think he might be a little high.’ I said, ‘No, this is Owen. He’s just a happy kid.’’’
For his 10th birthday last October, he received 534 cards from all 50 states, 10 countries, one congressman and even President Donald Trump, who spoke of his courage in a heartfelt letter.
While the family clings to a miracle that they know can be delivered, the mother and father have chosen not to tell Owen his time on earth is very short. “He knows he’s sick and he has moments where he asks, ‘I am ever going to be OK?'’’ his mother said. “Without a doubt, Owen is saved, and he was baptized in December. I tell him, ‘I promise you, you are going to be pain free.’ And he will be.”
No matter what the outcome, as believers, they understand that Owen Matthews will be pain free and that if this cancer takes him that they will see him again. That assurance in their faith keeps them going from day to day.
“That’s what we hold on to,” she said.
The family decided to share the journey on Facebook and there have been difficult days when posting bad news. Jennifer said they did it because they wanted as many prayer warriors as possible to follow them. She knew they would need the strength that comes from those prayers, and it has lifted them in some heartbreaking moments. Her heartfelt posts have brought many to tears.
“I hope we can be an encouragement to somebody who is going through some battle,” Jennifer said. “My husband lost both of his legs and, for some reason, God has given us another battle to go through.”