By LIZ SKALKA
NEW STAMFORD, Conn. (AP) -- Toni Maldonado Packes is sitting on a comfy recliner in her living room, gently rocking her 5-pound newborn, who's staring up at her with big gray eyes.
All of 12 days old, Paul is as easygoing as babies come. He rarely cries and seems happiest when he's upright, taking in, as best he can, what's happening around him.
For this and other reasons, Toni calls Paul her miracle baby.
It's partly because Toni had a high-risk pregnancy, suffering from what's called an incompetent cervix, which can result in a premature birth or the loss of a pregnancy. It's also because her husband and Paul's father, Anthony Packes, died just days after their son's birth at age 36.
"A lot of people say, `just look into your son's eyes, that will keep you strong,"' said Toni, 35. "I love my son, and I'm going to do everything in my power to be strong. But I was a wife before I was a mother and I want my husband. I love my son, and I'm so thankful for this miracle, but it doesn't replace him.
In the couple's Belltown apartment, there are no signs yet Toni is about to leave and move in with family. Her husband's guitar is on a stand in the middle of the room. A skinny black cat pads by his half-full bottle of scotch whisky. This is where they built their life.
"We never wanted to leave each other's side, in good times and bad," said Toni, whose grief doesn't mask her brown eyes and glowing skin. "He loved me like nobody ever loved me, and I loved him."
The couple met in late 2014 at, of all places, a shooting range in New York. He loved music and she loved writing him poems that he would frame.
They fell in love fast, talking early on about marriage and kids. They both wanted a big family and shared a desire for Toni to be a stay-at-home mother and Anthony to be their provider. Toni said she had never been in a relationship with anyone as kind as Anthony, making her wonder how she ever used to believe she didn't deserve that kind of love. They shared excitement about what the future held.
"He was the rock in my life, the male I always needed," said Toni, who lost both of her parents years ago. "He fed my spirit."
Then six months into their relationship, Anthony suffered a mysterious seizure during dinner one night.
"It came out of nowhere," Toni said. "This is a guy who never had a headache, never had any health issues."
After the seizure, Toni didn't think twice about dropping everything and moving from New Jersey to Stamford, where Anthony was a project manager for Life in Mobile, a marketing company. He also played with several bands that toured the tri-state area and Europe. His band Moonspank once opened for Don McLean at Alive(at)Five.
In March 2015, Anthony and Toni learned the seizure was caused by a brain tumor on his left temporal lobe and would require surgery followed by oral chemotherapy and radiation. The diagnosis was terrifying but Toni, who had worked in the medical field, helped Anthony choose the best doctors and supported him during treatment.
The couple was beyond relieved when he sailed into remission. Life could go on.
And it did. Shortly after Anthony's diagnosis, the couple got engaged. On Oct. 15, 2016, Anthony and Toni celebrated their wedding at the Greentree Country Club in New Rochelle, N.Y., cancer more than a year behind them. Toni was welcomed into the family by her in-laws, John and Patricia Packes, of Hawthorne, N.Y., and brother-in-law John Jr., of Norwalk.
The couple, only two years into their relationship, vowed to enjoy life as newlyweds before having children. Why rush what they knew would happen anyway?
But with cancer still on their minds, they ended up trying for a child. Like everything else in their relationship, it happened fast. Toni learned in April she was pregnant.
She was in her second trimester when they got the news: Anthony's cancer had returned and would require another surgery. Toni recalled sitting with her husband in a diner after the doctor's appointment. Anthony cried. He wanted to be the one caring for his wife, not the other way around. Toni assured him that one day he would.
That was in June. A few weeks after surgery, the tumor resurfaced again, this time as an aggressive glioblastoma, the most common form of malignant brain cancer and one of the most lethal cancers. Nearly 17,000 people died of malignant brain tumors like glioblastoma in 2017, according to an estimate from the National Brain Tumor Society. Anthony's family was told the tumor was inoperable.
The goal then became to prolong Anthony's quality of life. He consulted an expert in holistic medicine. As his speech and motor functions declined, Toni gave up her role as romantic partner to become Anthony's around-the-clock caretaker. She kept track of his appointments and medications, dressed him and helped him use the bathroom.
Meanwhile, Toni struggled with her high-risk pregnancy. Her doctor advised her to be on bed rest, but she found it difficult to stay still. Her husband needed help.
"It was torture watching him like that," Toni said. "Watching him decline and not being able to eat with his right hand. There were moments he would slam his left hand on the table he was so angry."
As she got further along in her pregnancy and her husband's condition worsened, Toni made a plan with her OB-GYN to induce labor at 37 weeks, putting her due date right after Christmas to give Anthony the best shot at meeting their son.
But lying in bed on Dec. 20, something didn't feel right. Toni had her sister help Anthony while she drove herself to the hospital. Doctors suspected there was an issue with the umbilical cord so her doctor decided to induce labor. Sixteen pushes and Paul was born the next morning, pink and wailing.
The promise Toni and Anthony made to each other weeks earlier, that Anthony make it long enough to hold his son against his bare skin, had been fulfilled.
"It's the definition of bittersweet," Toni said. "I hope, if anything, this will help people be kinder to one another and realize how short life is."
Toni and Paul returned home Christmas Eve. The next day Anthony was taken to the hospital, where he fell into a semi-coma. And on Dec. 30, wrapped in Toni's embrace, Anthony took his final breaths.
A GoFundMe has been setup to help the family. If you wish to donate, please click here.