Naming Cayden | Fall 2015 Spotlight | Story by Jesse James DeConto | Photos by Franklin Golden |

Methodist pastor Cleve May sits at the Arthurian, oak dining table in his home, holding his adopted son in his lap and explaining how 2-year-old Cayden Manuel Vasquez-May got his names.

The last name is obvious: Cayden took May from Cleve and his wife, Amy, the couple who’s cared for him since he left Duke Hospital six months after his preemie birth at 24 weeks.

Cayden turned 2 recently, but it’s not quite right to call him a toddler. He can’t toddle yet—or sit well on his own. He hasn’t spoken his first word. He hasn’t even weaned off infant formula, which he eats through a gastrostomy tube inserted through his abdomen. The G-tube feeds him slowly and constantly over the course of 18 hours a day; bigger feedings make him sick. But he gets a reprieve each day from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m., when the feedings stop and he can play more freely with his two big sisters and brother.

“He gets to be like a normal baby,” Amy says. “This is like our family time.”

Cayden is a May, despite the fact that Cleve and Amy’s first foster care application eight years ago indicated they would not take a child with severe developmental disabilities or chronic medical needs.

“It sounds all noble and stuff, but we wouldn’t have taken Cayden if we’d known,” Amy says.

“Nope,” Cleve adds, grinning into the little face that grins right back. “You didn’t fit our profile, Mr. C.”

The Durham County Department of Social Services took custody of Cayden as soon as he was born. His older sister had already been placed in foster care after her own premature birth at 26 weeks, and would eventually be adopted by their aunt and uncle in Texas. Cayden’s birth mother suffered from a chronic illness that led to an addiction to pain medication and a nearly fatal delivery of Cayden.

From the start, Cayden had a lot going against him. He suffers from nausea and acid reflux and his adrenal glands don’t produce enough cortisol, a steroid that aids in digestion, among other things. His chronically weak lungs weren’t fully developed because of his premature birth, and his larynx won’t close fully.

“If he gets sick, he gets really sick,” Amy says.

But Cayden was supposed to get better over the course of a year—eating normally and balancing on his feet, maybe with some added difficulty, as he learned to walk. That’s what Cleve and Amy had expected when they took him home.

A massive stroke changed everything in the summer of 2014.

Two months after the Mays first took Cayden home from the hospital, he got the flu and had to go back. Within a couple of days his blood-oxygen level plummeted, and nurses tried a breathing bag, then CPR. He ended up on a cardiopulmonary bypass machine that drew out his blood and swapped new oxygen for carbon dioxide, essentially replacing the functions of his heart and lungs. During his 10 days on the machine, Cayden suffered a stroke that badly damaged the left side of his brain.

Cayden came home from that 50-day hospital stay a very different child—with a very different trajectory for his health and his life. Today, he shows all the signs of cerebral palsy, which doctors trace back to the stroke. The Mays took on a daily regimen of nearly 30 medications and G-tube feedings to keep him alive and relatively healthy.

“It was a lot on them,” says Tamikca Styles, a Methodist Home for Children foster care specialist who worked with the family. “They were tired, but it never felt like they were burdened. Their faith is very strong, and I feel like that is a big part of why they do so well.”

The Mays gave Cayden the middle name Manuel, a nod both to his birth father’s Hispanic roots and to the Hebrew word Immanuel, meaning “God with us.” In Nicaraguan culture, the father’s surname would come before the hyphen, and that’s Vasquez, for the immigrant man the Mays call “bio-dad.” “We’re not trying to bury his roots,” Cleve says.

Cayden’s early needs were beyond what the father could manage—beyond also what the man’s brother and sister-in-law could manage, already having taken Cayden’s older sister into their home in Texas. But the families have stayed in touch, and Cayden’s birth father, sister, grandparents and two aunts came to his baptism this summer at CityWell, the United Methodist church founded by Cleve and Amy four years ago in Durham.

“I was super-anxious and a little bit hysterical,” Amy says. “He vomited all over his new outfit, and I totally lost it.”
She’d gotten used to cleaning up the messes, but Amy longed to show Cayden’s birth family a prettier picture of his life with her. “It was good and beautiful,” Cleve says. “And like a lot of good and beautiful things, it was hard.”

Amy had dreamed of adopting a child even before she met Cleve, but neither one of them expected the intensive care and emotional rollercoaster of loving Cayden.

Cleve was a 28-year-old pastor at Southern Pines United Methodist Church when they started foster-parent training through Moore County DSS. They had two young daughters already and, as they learned about the problems a child might suffer from chronic abuse and neglect, they found themselves checking off conditions they were unwilling to take on and realizing they were essentially closing themselves to all foster children except for healthy, newborn infants, who are normally not the ones needing families.

“It’s a terrible gut check,” Cleve says. “Our profile was very narrow.” Amy adds: “It’s like you’re at a sushi place and you’re checking off ingredients for your child. I remember thinking, ‘If I were a good person, I would just take any child.’ ”

Their feelings about parenting a special-needs child evolved with the birth of their son, John, and a series of failed adoption attempts.

First, they met a pregnant woman offering up her baby for adoption, but when they discovered the birth father didn’t know about the pregnancy, they stepped back, believing the situation to lack integrity and fearing it might turn into a legal battle. Then, just as they were about to foster a 24-week preemie, they found out Amy was pregnant with John, and DSS chose another family. By 2011, they were licensed by Methodist Home for Children and fostering a healthy baby boy, whom they planned to adopt, only to have his biological grandparents claim him after six months.

“That was very emotional,” says Cheryl Warren, the MHC foster care specialist who’d placed that baby with the Mays. “They had him from the time he was two days old.”

“We probably thought we were going to be done when we lost him,” Cleve remembers. “I would not have been surprised if we didn’t get back in the game.”

It was the Mays’ oldest daughter, McKenna, now 10, who’d kept asking when they would try again. Two years later they did, and on April 10, 2014, they got the call from Cheryl saying that Cayden was ready to leave the hospital and he’d need to be picked up that day.

Amy wanted to talk it over with the older kids first. “I know, I know,” McKenna said when Amy picked her up from school and announced they had something important to talk about. “You don’t have to tell me. God has answered my prayers.”

Cleve and Amy had prayed for a better health outcome when they first brought Cayden home from the hospital, but they are learning to trust the Lord on this unanticipated path. Faith is what sustains them and it’s what compelled them in the first place to become adoptive parents. “The Gospel is the story of our being adopted into God’s family, and we believe we are called to love others like God loves us. That’s what this is all about,” Cleve says.

When Cayden joined their family for good this summer, Cleve and Amy changed his middle name and part of his surname. But “Cayden” they kept, a gift from his birth mom. “She didn’t know what it meant,” Amy says. “She just liked the name.”

Cleve says Cayden is a Gaelic name that means “fighter.” Just then, Cayden squirms and grunts, maybe trying to get out of his dad’s arms.

“He’s trying to show you his warrior face,” Cleve says.