“Wonderful” and “terrifying.” Christian Moerlien used those two words as he described his newfound role as a father.

“It’s terrifying because everything that happened was not what we expected,” Christian said. “But he’s so adorable.”

Christian and his wife, Alexandria, are celebrating his first Father’s Day with their son, Clay Joseph, who was born at 1:37 a.m. on June 2 at Labette Health in Parsons, Kansas.

With their son weighing in at 7 pounds, 5 ounces, and measuring 19 1/2 inches long, the Moerliens settled in to celebrate their son’s birth.

But Clay Joseph had a few other plans.

Born three weeks early, he developed some complications after leaving his mother in labor for 16 hours. An hour after delivery, Clay Joseph stopped breathing, and doctors lost his heart beat. Chest compressions from when medical workers used CPR left him with some issues with his lungs.

So as a precaution, Clay Joseph was transferred to the NICU at Freeman Health System in Joplin. And the Moerliens, who live in Fredonia, Kansas, checked in at Joplin’s Ronald McDonald House.

Starting a family

Christian and Alexandria have been married for three years but together for nine.

Alexandria is a fourth grade teacher in Fredonia, while Christian works as a mechanic for the John Deere dealership in Independence, Kansas.

The couple said they were ready to start a family. One Sunday morning, Alexandria walked into the room, sat down on the couch and said, “Well, I’m pregnant.”

Alexandria jokes she took “about 14 tests throughout that day,” to make sure she was really pregnant.”

“She told her sister before she told me,” Christian said with a smile.

After undergoing a series of genetic testing, they were given a choice to know if the baby would be a boy or girl.

“I didn’t want to know, but he did,” Alexandria said. “So he won.”

“I don’t like the unknown,” Christian said.

In January, the couple hosted a gender reveal for Alexandria’s students. She said some were genuinely sad she wasn’t having a girl.

But they all have come around since then, she said. After Clay Joseph was born, she sent her students a photo of her son so they could continue to be a part of the process.

Alexandria joked that as a teacher she had a list of 100 names she liked. The couple went through the list one by one as Christian vetoed each choice.

One afternoon, while the pair were traveling to meet family, a Clay Walker song they both liked played on the radio. Alexandria said they both looked at each other and said, “We can name him Clay.” His middle name, Joseph, is in honor of his paternal great-grandfather, Gerald Joseph Atkins.

Clay Joseph is the first baby — and first grandbaby — to be born on his mom’s side of the family in at least 17 years. He joins three cousins on his dad’s side, who live in Virginia.

Alexandria said she has a cousin who is set to have a little boy in July.

“They are destined to become best friends,” she said.

While many might think John Deere would be the nursery theme, the couple picked a blue-and-grey color scheme that features at least 18 stuffed elephants given to the couple as gifts.

But because of his breathing difficulties, Clay Joseph wasn’t able to stay in that room yet.

Home away from home

The Moerliens are one of 76 families served so far in 2019 at the Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Four States in Joplin. Since the facility opened its doors in 1998, the house has served a total of 3,213 families from 38 states and two foreign countries over a total of 32,777 lodging nights.

Families are asked to contribute $10 per night to help offset the costs of the lodging. However, Tara Horinek, associate’s director for Ronald McDonald House Charities of the Four States, said if money is an issue, then the family’s stay is sponsored.

The Moerliens said the stay saved them hours and hours of driving time.

“They gave us a place to stay instead of driving two hours every night (and morning),” Christian said. “We probably wouldn’t have stayed in a hotel, choosing instead to drive from home. Staying here gave us more time with the baby.”

Alexandria said she never expected all the things provided by Ronald McDonald House staff and volunteers, including the meals, snacks and even the refrigerator provided to store breast milk.

“They have everything we need, all of the time,” Alexandria said.

Horinek said people can assist the families staying at the house in a variety of ways, ranging from volunteering their time and talents at the one, to participating in events such as the annual golf tournament; the Big Red Shoe 15K, 5K and 1-mile walk; and the Gift of Light Gift of Love program.

Other ways to become involved include collecting wish list items or pop tabs for recycling, sponsoring a family’s stay, preparing a meal or hosting a fundraiser.

“Volunteers are the heart of our programs,” Horinek said. “Volunteers are making a difference by helping keep families near each other and the care they need.”

One full-time program manager, one part-time program assistant and 139 active volunteers operate the house 24 hours a day, 365 days each year.

Horinek said the program manager oversees the day-to-day operations, while volunteers assist with various activities around the house, including housekeeping, providing support and services to families, night manager duties, meal preparation and more.

Looking to the future

The Moerliens received good news last week. They were able to take their son home. The only medical instructions for those tender lungs: “Love on him like a normal newborn baby.” They will return to Freeman later this month for an MRI to ensure healthy development.

They left the Ronald McDonald House on Thursday and showed Clay Joseph all the stuffed elephants in his new room — as well as plenty of John Deere tractor toys the couple was gifted.

Christian can’t wait to introduce his son to tractor pulling but is ready for anything — his grandmother told him that he was a “spitfire” and might have his hands full with Clay. Alexandria said she’s ready to experience life with her son.

“I want to experience everything,” Alexandria said. “He has a lot to learn, and we have a lot to teach him. But he has a lot to teach us too. We need to learn everything there is to know about him.”

Both Christian and Alexandria are older siblings, so they are used to serving as caretakers for younger kids. But for now, they plan to focus on Clay. Talks of siblings can wait for a while.

“We just want to give him all of the love we can,” Alexandria said.