Miracle mom

Celebrity makeup artist endures heartbreak on the road to motherhood.

By Jennifer Brett | The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

She woke up alone in a cold, white room.

Am I dead? she wondered. Is this heaven?

Nikole Morrow-Pettus, recovering from an emergency hysterectomy following an emergency C-section, was not in heaven, but she had been through hell. Pain, loss and disappointment had stalked her for years, a trio of wraiths that seemed to arrive at the worst possible moments, stealing her joy.

The Bible says God gives us only the burdens we are able to bear, and Nikole bore burdens that might have crushed a weaker spirit. Her difficult delivery followed a string of tragedies that would leave bruise marks on anyone’s soul.

When Montgomery Grey Pettus arrived at Piedmont Hospital on Jan. 5, he was 7 pounds and 14 ounces of perfection, a gift of happiness that followed years of sorrow, the answer to prayers Nikole had tucked away like a fading love letter, never to be read again.

Janus Single Chromeless Player

2

A fashionable romance

Nikole and Tony Pettus met on the job at a shopping center outside Nashville, Tenn. She was working at a clothing boutique and he was working at a sporting goods store.

“I would just stare at her all day,” said Tony, 47. He was too shy to approach her, but she caught him looking at her.

Do you want to talk to me or not? she demanded.

I like your hair, he croaked, thoroughly smitten.

After dating a while he followed when Nikole relocated to Atlanta in the mid-1990s to pursue a career in fashion. They married in 1999.

“When we first met, he used to say, ‘I want six or seven kids,’” said Nikole, 44. “I was coming from, ‘I don’t want any!’”

Today, Tony works in finance, appraising homes for a bank, and is working on a master’s degree in accounting at Strayer University. Nikole makes beautiful people even more so. A master makeup artist at the Van Michael salon in Buckhead, she works society weddings, designer fashion shows and with celebrity publicists who squire high-wattage visitors through Atlanta on press tours. She’s glammed up a galaxy of stars including Viola Davis, Octavia Spencer, Brad Pitt and Samuel L. Jackson.

“I lucked out. I kind of ran into the right people,” Nikole said, shrugging off all the A-list faces she tends to. A stunning beauty herself, she wields her cosmetic brushes like a classically trained painter. Her clients don’t look overly made up; they look like more perfect versions of themselves after she’s done with them.

Nikole comes naturally by such sophistication and grace. Thanks to her father’s military career, her childhood was a cultured, cosmopolitan one.

“I traveled all over the world and I lived in Europe,” she said. “I always loved fashion. Makeup kind of found me. I winged it and found out I was good at it.”

Her profession, rather than having children, was her calling early on. But when she was in her 20s, she had an ectopic pregnancy that ended before she even knew it had begun. Sharp pain and bleeding from what she thought was just an unusually heavy period sent her to the doctor. Ectopic pregnancy occurs when a fertilized egg is implanted outside the uterus. Only in rare cases is the embryo viable, and the condition can be lethal for the mother.

Nikole underwent surgery and was told she might need medical assistance getting pregnant again. At the time, with kids not really on her radar screen, that didn’t trouble her much. Then in 2006, she and Tony learned they were expecting again.

“We were shocked but it was a good shock,” Nikole said. “We were like, OK, we’re going to be parents.”

As it happened, they’d just bought a two-story house in southwest Atlanta and felt ready to welcome a child. The home is as stylish as they are. In the living room, rich charcoal walls surround crisp ivory armchairs and a smoke-colored sofa. Near the ultra-modern dining room, with its sleek metal chandelier and bold artwork, is a corner table filled with vintage family photos. Stacks of coffee table books on designers and years’ worth of Vogue magazines feel right at home.

Tricking out a new baby’s room, naturally, was a fun project.

“I immediately went into decorating the nursery,” Nikole said.

A spare bedroom got redone in a preppy scheme: kelly green walls and white bedding with yellow detailing was perfect for the new addition. A sporty chalkboard stood ready for little hands learning to draw. A wooden rocking horse awaited the son they planned to name Peyton Alexander, due in January 2007.

How we got the story

I interview movie stars for a living, often right after makeup artist Nikole Morrow-Pettus gets her expert hands on them. We share a dedication to our respective fields and neither of us gets star struck. At a publicity stop at Fort Benning for the movie “Fury” last fall, I was more excited to see my friend, looking so glorious and round, than Brad Pitt. In November, I asked Nikole if she’d share her story, although I feared it might be hard for her to walk back through the emotional minefield she has traversed for the past nine years. “I know it sounds weird, but I don’t just think it’s for me,” she said. “It’s not just my story. Being open enough to tell it is going to be a blessing.”

Jennifer Brett
Staff writer
personaljourneys@ajc.com

In the photo above, Nikole (right) prepares AJC reporter Jennifer Brett’s makeup for an appearance on CNN.

3

A Christmas tragedy

One night two weeks before Christmas, when she was about 30 weeks along, Nikole felt a weird tightness. It was like a band was wrapped around her midsection.

“I adjusted the pillows and fell asleep,” she said. “The next day the pain persisted. It was a dull pain, not severe.”

She was going about her day as usual when she realized, I haven’t felt him move today.

She had a cold drink of water and a sugary snack, a combination that usually spurred kicking. Nothing. She called her doctor’s office.

Come in now, the nurse said. An eerie specter crept into the car with her on the drive.

In the examination room, instead of the gentle whooshing heartbeat she’d heard during previous ultrasounds, there was silence, and no movement on the screen.

“You could see the baby but no heartbeat,” Nikole said.

She called Tony.

He’s gone, she said.

I’ll come and get you, he said.

She told him she’d rather come back alone.

This is something between me and God, she said.

By the time she drove home from Northside Hospital to their house in southwest Atlanta, Tony had taken down the Christmas decorations. He could not bear the twinkling lights, the signs of celebration. She didn’t sleep that night. She sat in the dark for hours, waiting for the dawn.

The next day, they returned to the hospital where doctors induced delivery. The staff put a dove on the door, not a stork as with other maternity rooms, a silent message of grief.

Nikole didn’t want a funeral or memorial service, but she wanted to hold her son.

“He had all his fingers and toes. He was the color of a chestnut,” she said. “His eyes never opened so I never knew what color his eyes were. He had some of Tony’s features. He definitely had his toes. He was absolutely perfect. His heart just stopped. To this moment, we do not know what happened.”

Peyton’s remains were cremated, and Nikole and Tony came home in a fog. They kept the television off so they wouldn’t hear Christmas specials. They burrowed with their dog, Sasha, and shut out the world.

“God does a lot of things we don’t know the answer for," Tony said. “I don’t think the pain will ever go away.”


On the road to motherhood

  • Nikole and Tony met when they were working at a shopping center near Nashville. They've been married since 1999. Photo: David Tulis
  • Nikole and Tony decorated Grey's nursery nook in cozy gray hues and cuddly elephants. Photo: David Tulis
  • Nikole and Tony met when they were working at a shopping center near Nashville. He'd stare at her all day, captivated by her beauty and style, but was too shy to approach her at first. Photo: David Tulis
  • Nikole and Tony met when they were working at a shopping center near Nashville. They've been married since 1999. Photo: David Tulis
  • Nikole comforts her newborn son, Grey, a few days after his birth in their southwest Atlanta home. Her difficult delivery followed an emotional rollercoaster ride to motherhood. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole and Tony took a very heartbreaking journey to parenthood. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • One day Nikole says she’ll tell Grey about his brother, Peyton, whose bonnet and spoon hang in a shadow box on the nursery wall. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole and Tony decorated Grey's nursery nook in cozy gray hues and cuddly elephants. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole holds her newborn son, Grey, a few days after his birth, in their southwest Atlanta home. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole cradles her little miracle just a few days after his birth. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • “I stare at him a lot and think, you really are here,” Nikole says. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole cradles her little miracle just a few days after his birth. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole has glammed up a galaxy of stars including Viola Davis (seen here with Nikole), Octavia Spencer, Brad Pitt and Samuel L. Jackson.
  • Nikole had so many well-wishers, she had to schedule multiple baby showers to accommodate them all. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole's friend Sylvia Wright helps her open all the gifts she received at a shower in November at the Cherokee Town and Country Club. Photo: Hyosub Shin
  • Nikole hugs her friend James Hurley as he gets emotional during her baby shower at the Cherokee Town and Country Club. Photo: Hyosub Shin

4

Adoption gone awry

Doctors said Nikole and Tony could try again, and so they did. But after a year, nothing. They saved up for months to afford in-vitro fertilization.

“I was taking hormones you wouldn’t give a horse,” she said. “The levels should have sent me to the crazy house.”

The first round was unsuccessful. So was the second. So was the third. Finally doctors suggested using donor eggs, which held no appeal. Instead, Nikole brought up a new idea: Let’s adopt.

Tony had been thinking the same thing. In 2010 they got started with the blizzard of necessary paperwork, then moved into the home-study process, which took about a year.

“Oh my God, the letter you have to write about yourself, the autobiography you have to develop, questions about your character, your background, your youth, why you think you are going to be such a great parent,” Nikole said. “Can you imagine if everyone who had a child had to do this?”

In April 2012, Nikole and Tony were matched with a newborn whose young, unwed mother had just given birth. The woman lived with her parents and already had a toddler at home. She didn’t think she could provide for another child.

After waiting so long, it felt like they were whisked in an instant to the hospital in southwest metro Atlanta where a baby girl waited. But first, the birth mother wanted to meet the couple who would be raising her child.

“You don’t know what to say to a woman who’s giving their child to you,” Nikole said. “I hugged her and asked if she was feeling well and did she need anything. That was a weird conversation. Tony the whole time was staring into the incubator and was covering this poor child in tears. I said, ‘You’re going to drown the baby!’”

The quip provided a needed chuckle, and things warmed up.

Do you want to hold her? I’ll step out and let you feed her, the woman said. Nikole handed the baby to Tony.

This is really happening, he said.

Alexandria Grace was the name they chose. She had to stay in the hospital for a few days due to jaundice, and when it was time to leave, a nurse told Nikole that the birth mother had been coming to visit.

Nikole had a frank talk with the woman before leaving the hospital.

Look me in the eye and tell me you would never change your mind, Nikole said.

You guys are going to be perfect parents, Nikole recalled her saying. I could never give her the life you’re going to give her.

So Nikole and Tony and Alexandria Grace became a family. The new parents hadn’t had time to set up a proper nursery, but friends had helped outfit them with diapers, bottles and other necessities. Alexandria Grace left the hospital in a chic monogrammed sleeper. Nikole took her home and tucked her into a bassinet she had set up in her bedroom.

The tiny princess was immediately a bigger celebrity than any of the stars Nikole had worked with, and she changed her Facebook profile image to a photo of her nuzzling her new love. She found the perfect outfit, a onesie decorated with pearls and a designer handbag.

Their lives were finally complete.

For seven days.

Two weeks before Mother’s Day, their adoption counselor called with devastating news: The birth mother wanted Alexandria Grace back, and she had the legal right to reclaim custody. Under Georgia law, birth parents have 10 days from the time they sign adoption papers to change their mind.

Nikole was too stunned to cry.

“I was just shocked,” she said.

Their last day together, paradoxically enough, started out perfect. The sun was shining, the baby had slept well and eagerly taken her bottle.

“I wasn’t jumbled, I wasn’t flustered,” she recalled. “I was like, ‘I’ve finally got a routine.’ I was in the best mood.”

And then it was time to say goodbye. Tony and Nikole dressed Alexandria Grace in a onesie dotted with strawberries and packed a bag of diapers, clothes and bottles.

Wendy Willman, executive director of Georgia Adoption Specialists, said picking up the baby from Nikole and Tony was the worst day of her career.

“He was sobbing. I can still hear those sobs in my head. She handed me the baby. I was shaking, having to pick up that baby from them,” she said.

In their last moment together Nikole whispered a quote from Winnie the Pooh into Alexandria Grace’s ear: If there ever comes a day when we can’t be together, keep me in your heart. I’ll stay there forever.


“It’s a kiss from his brother.”

NIKOLE PETTUS, on the heaven-sent cleft in her son Grey's chin.


5

A happy surprise

In those first raw, empty moments after Alexandria Grace left, Tony had to hold Nikole to keep her from collapsing. In the weeks that followed he devoted himself to helping her through the loss. His birthday is in June, but he blew out no candles that year. Just as there had been no Christmas celebration in 2006, when Peyton died in utero, there was no birthday celebration six years later when Alexandria Grace left.

Nikole found solace in long hours at work. In a mean twist of serendipity, she worked a press tour that summer for “The Odd Life of Timothy Green,” a movie filmed in Atlanta about a childless couple who finally become parents with supernatural intervention. Their hopes are realized when a beautiful child is born from the box of wishes they bury in the yard, but in accordance with the magic that brought him, Timothy leaves them in the end.

Instead of dreading the assignment, Nikole embraced it.

“When I say I am grateful for my life it isn’t because everything goes my way,” she said in a note to friends at the time. “It’s because everything goes the way it’s destined.”

After Peyton died it took her months just to be able to walk into the nursery. After Alexandria Grace left she decided to find a way to be a blessing to others.

“A few friends had babies and they got some really good baby stuff,” she said. “I just let it go. I let it go without bitterness.”

She had a final word with God about the matter.

If you want me to be the best aunt or godmother in the world, that’s what I’m going to do, was her prayer.

Last spring, her prayer was answered in a way she never expected. Nikole was tiring easily, felt cranky and had put on a few pounds. At 44, she suspected menopause was on the horizon and made a doctor’s appointment. Time to start estrogen therapy, she figured.

Whoa, the doctor said. You’re pregnant.

That’s not possible, she thought as he ordered an ultrasound.

“Sure enough, on that screen is a baby just moving around and waving at you,” she said.

It’s hard to say exactly what Nikole felt at that moment. She thought about Peyton and Alexandria Grace. She thought about the $30,000 she and Tony had spent on fertility treatments. After so much pain, so much loss, she was finally going to be a mother.

Seriously, God? This is for real?

A beaming nurse asked if she was happy. Nikole tried to funnel her feelings into words. “Happy” just was not big enough.

It’s a miracle, she said.

She called Tony and when she got home, he was standing in the driveway waiting for her, a look of wonder on his face. They grinned at each other and could not stop. Then they started laughing.

Nikole’s pregnancy was mercifully uneventful. Her baby bump became public property, embraced by elated friends and colleagues. She had to schedule multiple baby showers to fit in all the well-wishers.

“You’re testament that God has the last word,” her friend Evelyn Mims said during a shower held in November at the Cherokee Town and Country Club. “It’s not over until God says it is.”

They chose the name Montgomery to honor both Nikole’s and Tony’s heritage. She was born in Montgomery County, Ohio, and Tony is from Montgomery County, Tennessee. It’s also her stepfather’s last name. They decided to call him by his shorter middle name, Grey, and outfitted a luxurious nursery in cozy gray hues and cuddly stuffed elephants.

“I’m going to call him Lord Grey,” Tony said a few weeks before his son’s birth. He mused that he’d just bought a onesie and the clerk asked if it was for his grandson.

“I can only imagine when he goes to school and his friends’ parents are in their 20s and we’re in our 50s,” he laughed. “It’s going to be interesting.”

But their long road to parenthood would make them better prepared to raise a child, he said.

Despite her prenatal history and her age, Nikole wasn’t worried. She was feeling great the day she arrived for a regular checkup on Jan. 2. But doctors grew concerned that the baby wasn’t more active and decided to induce delivery.

Calm as ever, Nikole ran home to wash her face, grab a bite to eat and collect her overnight bags. She called Tony and her family but told everyone not to worry.

I guess we’re going to have a baby today, she said.

Medication got the labor process started and Nikole pushed for hours. Finally, the medical team decided on a C-section, but the procedure was complicated by how far the delivery had progressed. In the recovery room afterward, Nikole felt something warm. She was bleeding from a tear to her uterus following the procedure. Back into surgery she went, this time for an emergency hysterectomy.

“I woke up in ICU,” Nikole said. “I didn’t know it was a whole day later. It was just me by myself. I thought I had died.”

Do you want to see your son? a nurse asked.

Nikole held out her arms.

You’re mine, she told her new son. No one can take you away from me, and we’re going to have a good life.

About the reporter

Jennifer Brett is a University of North Carolina graduate who has been at the AJC since 1998. She has covered a variety of beats including education, cops and courts, the legislature and the 2008 Beijing Olympics before moving into her current job covering local movie/television projects, celebrity sightings and the economic impact of the state’s growing film industry. She and her husband, AJC Senior Business Editor Charles Gay, live in historic Marietta.

6

Family made whole

Grey has kissable cheeks, a glossy head of hair and the sweetest little dimple, a cleft chin unlike anyone on either his mother or his father’s side. Nikole believes Peyton, the son she never knew, sent it down from heaven.

“It’s a kiss from his brother,” she said.

She keeps Peyton’s baby Bible in her bedside table, a photograph of his body tucked inside. A bonnet and spoon that would have been Peyton’s is preserved in a shadowbox hanging in Grey’s nursery. One day she’ll share the story with her son.

Somewhere there is a beautiful little girl who turns 3 in April. Alexandria Grace has a place in Nikole’s thoughts, too.

“I always will love her,” she said. “I pray that she’s doing well.”

Nikole’s and Tony’s hearts, once broken, are now full to the point of bursting, and their story is a gift they eagerly share.

“When everybody else says no, God says yes,” Tony said. “There’s a blessing and a lesson in everything.”

He believes that he and his wife were chosen for this long voyage to parenthood for a reason, and that Grey has a special purpose in life.

Nikole feels like a different person now.

“I stare at him a lot and think, you really are here,” she said. The hysterectomy means she cannot have any more children, but that’s OK.

“I’m alive. He’s good. Everything is perfect,” Nikole said. “He will be the miracle of my life. I got a wish that I had blown away. I don’t think God makes things happen. I think he lets things happen when they are supposed to.”

Presentation by Shane Harrison.