I drafted this post when I was in the midst of editing both my first and second sessions as a photographer for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. Although I wanted to share what that experience felt like, it took time for me to be at ease sharing something so seemingly personal. For those who may not know, Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (or NILMDTS) is a national non-profit that provides professional photography--free of charge--for families when babies are stillborn, or will not make it home from the hospital. The organization started when photographer Sandy Puc photographed Maddox, the newborn son of Cheryl Haggard, both before and after he was removed from life support. Sandy and Cheryl turned Cheryl's loss into a beautiful organization that serves others in such pain. When I mention this part of my life to people, they all say some version of "How do you do that?" And sometimes I wonder myself how I managed to do this. Twice so far.
Opening the door to meet my first family was one of the more difficult moments of my life, I won't deny that. The door was heavy, in every way imaginable. I took a deep breath, and pushed down the fear--there was a job to do. I was met with a stillness, and a heaviness that I can't quite explain. It was almost like breathing in their pain. I squeezed into the small hospital room, with the five of them. I won't forget their tears. Heavy.
"It was my job to bottle this moment...her beginning and her end."
And then I saw her, a beautiful baby girl. So tiny, so fragile looking. Her hands, thin fingers not much longer than my thumbnail. I keep thinking of her delicate features, and the still calm of her face. And when I saw her, I could feel something different, I could feel love. Literally. I know it sounds silly, but it was palpable. I calmed down, and I started to focus. It was my job to bottle this moment for this family, to give them something tangible to take away from this, to give them a visual of their tiny miracle, of her beginning and her end.
It was heartbreaking. And remarkable. But I had to find the beauty. As a photographer, that is always my job. And shooting for NILMDTS is no different that way. The goal is the same. But the stakes feel so much higher, because they are. So I did what every photographer does: I got to work. I set my light, I positioned the family, I posed the baby, I framed my shots. Every once in a while, I pulled the camera from my eye and whispered: "is it OK to keep going?" And the dad would nod his head so subtly I could barely see it. And I kept doing my job.
And as I was wondering how I was going to tell them that I was done, the mother, holding her little girl in her hands, so close to her face said "I'm sorry, I just can't. I can't do anymore." She turned away from me as the emotion started pouring out of her. The rest of the family thanked me. Including a bleary-eyed boy, about 12 or 13, cheeks stained with tears. Her brother. The dad shook my hand, I said "I'm sorry I had to meet you this way, take care of each other." And there it was.
"I am a watering can of a woman at times. But there were no tears."
As soon as I closed the door, I took a very deliberate, very deep breath and headed toward the elevator. I was perfectly calm. I thought I would be losing it, as soon as I was out the parents' sight. In my mind, I always saw myself crying. Hard. I am quite a watering can of a woman at times. I cry at commercials. But there were no tears. Only calm and a sense of relief that I got to go home now. I reached for the elevator button, and heard swift footsteps behind me. "Can you wait?" said the nurse as I turned to look at her. "We lost another one...can you stay? I didn't want to say anything to them yet, just in case you can't." And so, I started walking toward my next heavy door. Because, how on earth could I say no?
Usually when I do a session, I excitedly upload my photos and look through them right away. Not with these sessions. It took me days to open those photos. And it wasn't exactly fear of what I would see, it was fear that they would not be good enough. I want my portraits to honor these families, to honor their loss, to be everything that they need them to be. But at the end of the day, all I can do is try my hardest. Regardless of how beautiful and tragic the pictures are, they will never be good enough for me. I will always want more from them, I will always want them to be every bit of what I felt in those rooms, to have all of that beauty and all of that love. And I know that I am better because I feel that way.
Back in January, I sat in a seminar where NILMDTS co-founder Sandy Puc talked about her journey. I asked her the exact question that other people ask me: "how can you do this?" Her response was perfect. She said "I ask you, how can you not?" And here I am now.
"How can you do this?" I asked. Her response was perfect. She said "I ask you, how can you not?"
If you are a photographer reading this, wondering if you can do it, I have to tell you that I didn't think I could either. But you only think you can't. You jump through the fear, you take a deep breath, and you give yourself to others. The call to service gives you courage. There are few times in my life that I have felt brave. But that was a gift I received from this--a sense of courage.
For more information on how to become a volunteer, on how to donate, or on how to contact us for services, please go to www.nilmdts.org.