I had a NILMDTS call last week that was one of the most difficult I’ve ever done.

When I arrived it was already late at night – the parents had already said their goodbyes, and were going to sleep. I was going to be alone with the baby in the cleaning room again. I’ve done a few sessions in there, and it’s always a little cold and lonesome. I don’t like it, and I wish I could do those sessions in an unoccupied room instead.
The nurses take the babies out of a fridge in the corner, wrapped tightly in blankets with a pin through the top as though they are a package of bread fresh from the bakery. They put them on the steel counter, then close the door and leave us. In there I am surrounded by garbage cans full of bloody sheets, afterbirth wrapped in clear plastic, torn gloves and needle disposals. The sink is full of broken glass and blood from the delivery rooms. The floor has blue tubs of recyclables, and there’s a toilet chair in one corner. It is a horrible place to take such precious photos. It makes me feel as though they see the babies with as much worth as the rest of the things they store in here.

That night I was greeted by a short-tempered nurse, who quickly ushered me into the room and walked away without introductions. I put my things down and saw the small bundle of blankets wrapped up on the counter. There was no consent form next to him. I looked around, and realized it wasn’t anywhere. I’m not supposed to do any session without it, at the very least because it doesn’t contain any contact information from the parents and I can’t send them their images when I’m done.
I ensured the baby wasn’t too close to the counter, as though I fear he’s going to roll and fall, and went out to the nurses station to ask about the forms. They had no idea what I was talking about, and the social workers had already gone home, so I had to use a back-up copy I keep in my camera bag. I was pushing to go into the parents room myself, and go over the forms with them, but the nurse clearly was trying to dissuade me. I insisted on going in: I want them to meet me, and be comfortable with my presence. I’m going to be one of the last people to ever touch and hold their child… I would want to meet me.

The lights were off in the room when I entered, and it was very quiet. I saw them laying together on a reclined bed, and softly walked in. The nurse came in behind me, threw the door open and yelled out, “The photographer would like to talk to you!”, smiled and left when they abruptly sat up. Normally I don’t find the nurses there to be so callous, but in all the years working there I’d never run into this one and she was becoming a royal pain.
The mother, a young woman with swollen eyes and tattoos across her shoulders, sat up and slurred a greeting. She apologized for her appearance: they’d given her a lot of drugs to ensure she’d sleep that night. I thought it odd, as I’d just overheard the snappy nurse talking at the station about how angry she was that her partner had refused to let them drug her. Perhaps it’s because she’d already been given something.

I stood by their bed and walked them through the form, offering to dictate parts of it so she didn’t have to sit up and read in her state. As I talked, the mother caught something very subtle in something I said, and asked me when I lost my child.
“Almost five years ago,” I answered.
She handed the forms to her husband, realizing it was becoming too difficult to focus. “Do you still think about him?”
“All the time.” I smiled, and she returned it. “I just got a tattoo of his hand last week. Do you want to see?”
She sat forward to indicate her interest, and I lifted my shirt to show her. She reached out as though to stroke it, and pulled away just before… “It’s lovely.”

The husband finished writing, and gave the clipboard back to me. I glanced over it to ensure nothing had been missed.
“Did you have any other questions about the photos, or about me?”
They looked at each other, and shook their heads. “No, I think we’re okay. Thank you, for doing this…” the mother said, “Really.”
I nodded, gathered the forms, and began to walk away when I felt a touch. The mother held out a shaking hand. “Please,” she whispered, “Be gentle with him.”
“I will.”

When I came back into the room the snappy nurse was taking a footprint. She gave me a strained smile, covered the baby loosely and walked out. The door clicked shut behind her, and I let out a sigh of relief: I didn’t want to do the session with her watching me.
I put the forms down on the table next to bundle of blankets. Baby boy was laying on his side with one hand and part of his face peeking out from beneath a loose swaddle. My breath caught at the sight of him, and I stood in silence waiting for his eyes to flutter. I’ve never dealt with a baby that looked so… alive. It seems like a harsh thing to say, but most of the babies I’ve photographed have very obvious physical symptoms of having passed away days or hours earlier. He did not: he looked perfect and new. Little locs of wet hair were tightly curled around his head, still brushed with vernix and blood from his birth only two hours earlier.

It took me a few minutes to work up the courage to reach forward and pick him up. He was big and heavy in my arms, over eight pounds at least. As I held him I rocked back and forth, it’s hard not to sway when holding a baby. His face was chubby and sweet, with full cheeks and tightly curled hair. As I rocked, the blanket fell away from the side of his face and I realized he had a small orb on his ear, just like Xan. Not as big, but there nonetheless. I had to look away. I read his form, sitting on the table next to me.
His name read, “Zander”. My heart sank. He was so big and heavy. This is too hard.
I took a few deep breaths, and gently lay him in the bassinette. As I tucked him in, I started talking to him about who I was and why I was there. I told him he was beautiful, and that his parents loved him very much. Each time I shifted him, I hushed and cooed. It’s hard not to, no matter the condition or age of the babies, I’m always talking to them as I work.

When he was comfortably cradled in the bassinette, I unwrapped the blanket so I could position him a little more naturally. I reached out to touch his hands and was shocked to find them still very warm and soft. I did not expect them to feel that way.
I whispered, “Oh, baby” and for the first time in many sessions I broke down sobbing.
I stood for a long time, crying and stroking the backs of his hands.
“I’m so sorry,” I said. I wiped my eyes and composed myself. I spent twenty minutes with him, taking photos and finding details. Fingertips, toes, ears, eyelashes and the creases in his lips.

I finished with his feet, and when I was done I put down my camera and washed the ink off my hands. It suddenly occurred to me that his hands were clean; the nurse had forgotten to take prints. When I came in she was finishing a footprint, and I watched her throw the ink pad in the biohazard trash next to me. She wasn’t going to do it.
I peeked inside the trash can and saw two fresh, unopened printing sets sitting on top of bloodied sheets from his birth. I donned a glove and retrieved them, along with some scrap paper from my bag. My heart was pounding as I pressed his hands into the ink pads; I was afraid someone would come in and kick me out for doing something wrong. After all I went through with Jericho’s handprints, I couldn’t go home without taking them.

I took two sets of prints, side by side, spending several minutes on each hand and taking care with each finger to ensure the prints were complete. Just as I finished with the last set the door flew open and an older woman with a stethoscope walked in behind me. I was terrified she was going to be the snappy nurse, and jumped in shock when she appeared.
“I’m… just taking a print!” I admitted. I’m sure I looked guilty.
“Oh, that’s brilliant,” she said. I wasn’t sure what to say in response. “I’m so glad you did, otherwise no one may have remembered.”
“… Thank you.” It sounded like the right thing to say. I felt a little vulnerable, like I’d been caught in the act of doing something inappropriate. I’m not there to take prints, and I was kind of afraid someone would think I was somehow tainting him. I tried to explain myself, “I saw that it hadn’t been done, and I wanted to make sure the parents had it… when my son died the prints I got were so bad that it took years to find someone to reconstruct them enough for a tattoo.”
“I’m sorry,” the doctor said. “About your son.”

She introduced herself as the doctor who delivered him. She was sent there to take his measurements, and then move his body to the morgue downstairs. I packed up my things, and watched as she very gently measured his length, and head circumference. She talked to him quietly, and was so careful as she picked up his hands and feet.
I hadn’t moved in a few minutes, and she noticed me watching. “It must be hard.”
“Pardon?”
“It must be hard to do this. I know you’ve been working here for a few years now.”
I’m never sure if I should answer this question honestly… because it’s not the answer that most expect. I’m asked almost every time I come in, most often from the younger nurses. I hesitated before replying, “It is… but it isn’t. I want to do it.”
“Because of your son?”
“Yes. He makes it easier–” her face was kind as I spoke, and it made the story slip out without thinking, “I wasn’t treated very well the night he was born, and I never got to see him before he died… I don’t have much, and the details are fading. When I found out about the organization I wanted to join so I could give others what I wasn’t offered.”
“How long did your son live?”
“A few hours. But I had a cesarean, and was in recovery.”
“That’s a long time, you should have been able to see him–” she let the question hang. I felt that her interest was sincere, so I told her his story. She was soft and sympathetic as I talked, and listened closely, occasionally reaching down to stroke the baby boy’s cheeks as I spoke.
After I finished, and she offered her condolences on the way the staff mismanaged my case.

In that moment of tenderness, the door flew open and the snappy nurse from earlier stepped in. She had an armful of forms and sheets, and her face held a mix of surprise and irritation. “I thought you’d be gone by now,” she greeted.
“I’m just leaving, actually.”
She didn’t move from the doorway, and looked impatient as I zipped my gear bag and grabbed my purse. I picked up the paper with the baby’s handprints on them and asked the doctor, “Where should I put this? I want to make sure it gets to the parents…”
“If you leave it there, I’ll give it to them personally.” She smiled.
I thanked her, and left, an act that required pushing past the nurse who still hadn’t moved from the door of the already cramped room. As I turned the corner I heard her list a few excuses to the doctor for not taking the baby’s handprints. I felt vindicated by her guilt. I hope she never forgets again.

When I got in the car I texted Curtis: “This one was hard. Coming home soon, don’t wait up.” It was already a quarter past midnight.
“Are you okay?” he sent back.
“I’ll be home soon.”
I was out of tears when I pulled into the driveway, but the stains on my cheeks gave it away. I told Curtis about the little orb on his ear, and the baby boy’s name… he took my hand and led me into the kids bedroom, where Tempest and Xan were curled up together in his bed, sleeping in a pile of blankets and toys. They looked like a litter of kittens.
“Look at him,” Curtis said. “He’s okay.”

I don’t want to sound like a martyr, as though this work is the hardest and most unrewarding thing I could do but I trudge through it for the good of others… because it really isn’t like that. It hasn’t ever been like that. And I hope that it’s not like that for anyone else who is doing it. It is difficult, but at the same time it isn’t: it’s easy.
It’s easy because I want to do it. It’s easy because I need to do it. Because it helps to heal a wound that can’t ever close. Because giving parents the gift of ignorance, of not knowing what it’s like to have nothing left, is the best thing I can think of giving. I don’t walk away beaming with pride at a job well done, but I do walk away feeling blessed to have met these beautiful, perfect children that so many others will turn away from the very idea of. I know how it feels to lose friends and become more and more isolated as those around you become increasingly uncomfortable with your grief. I know how it feels to hear everyone around you pull away from discussion about your child, forgetting their name, their birthday, and eventually their existence. I know how it feels to realize that no one will even think about them unless they elevate their death to an idealized story of angel wings and magical rules that took them away because they were “too beautiful for life”. It’s bullshit, and it hurts: they aren’t magical beings that never had a chance at human life, they’re children. Your children.
It’s one of the worst parts of processing your grief.

I don’t feel afraid, or angry as I walk into a room. I feel grateful for the chance to give someone something I was never offered, and the only thing I want in return is the memory of having held and cared for each baby… however briefly.

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33 Comments

  • Are you published because oh my gosh that was … i don’t even have the words. I bet you would be a great short story writer.

  • maylea_moon says:

    heather, you are such an amazing and beautiful human being.

  • altarflame says:

    I’ve been floundering about what to say to this for 24 hours now. I came on and found it late last night and was…enrapt is putting it lightly. It’s just so much. And you’re pregnant. I guess that is all I can really think to say, still.

  • tmuses says:

    I try to put myself in people’s shoes. In some ways I think that if I lost my baby, I wouldn’t want these beautiful pictures of him/her because it doesn’t look real. Real life isn’t fuzzy, or black and white. I thought that maybe for me to feel connected to my baby I would rather have a regular camera, taken by an untrained person. And while I would treasure those “normal” pictures, I think that what you do with a photograph is special. When you said that you were finding details like fingertips, creases, and ears… that is the kind of stuff I would want done by a skilled photographer. I’ve never been a fan of “professional” pictures because they look so fake. But the fine details. That can only really be done by someone that is skilled.

    Also, a part of me was hoping that Zander was going to be living… somehow. Sad.

  • smellykaka says:

    I don’t understand why someone who hates people would want to be a nurse (or a teacher for that matter). You have to wonder how many other people she’s treated like that. πŸ™

  • ppplmgwiw says:

    I read every baby’s story on the NMLDTS site the other night. I just wanted to know who they were. I think what you do is amazing.

  • lululily says:

    You’ve written many beautiful posts, so many that I wanted to comment on, but didn’t out of… I don’t know. Not finding the words, not measuring up. I couldn’t let this one pass without saying something. I still don’t have anything coherent or moving to say, but thank you. For doing this work, for talking about it, for talking about Jericho, for introducing us to these beautiful babies. They do live on in the memories of strangers, which is small comfort, but they are not forgotten. I wish I could enfold you all in a hug.

  • tastyanagram says:

    Thanks for posting this. I’m surprised at all the comments on here about you being “strong” after you went over in such detail how you don’t feel that way. I can understand that it might be extremely difficult for you and make you feel grief and sadness, but I don’t see how the actual act of giving these parents this gift requires strength. When I read your NILMDTS stories I just feel glad that you have the photographic skills to help out, and am grateful along with you that these families have someone so caring to help them remember.

    Also, bless that doctor.

    • admin says:

      Thank you for understanding that. Really and truly. And you’re right, for me it really isn’t about strength at all… that doesn’t come into play. Just as “Surviving Jericho’s death” isn’t about strength, either. It isn’t strength to get up in the morning and make a cup of coffee: it’s life. I have to do it, otherwise I’ll die. And to characterize that as strength somehow cheapens the reality, you know?

      And double agree on the doctor, she was wonderful. I’ve never met her before and I just wanted to wrap my arms around her and give her a huge hug. She was incredibly kind and loving. It’s doctors like her that make all the difference.

      • res_urrected says:

        I feel this way when people see me struggle with my daughter’s disability and tell me I am “strong” but that “everything will work out.” Of course everything will work out. If everything didn’t work out the world would end. It may work out good or bad, but it’s not strength I have. I’m just not tired enough to lay down and give up yet. I hope if that day ever comes someone will be there to pick me up and stand me back up and move me on. Maybe it’ll be my daughter.

        I find it so sad how the babies are treated and where they are “stored”. I am glad you can impart some humanity into their stay there. Thank you, from every other parent out here.

      • bluealoe says:

        Yes< \i>. After my dad died, I got to the point that if anyone said I was “so strong”, I seriously wanted to punch them. And got very close several times.

        • Me too. I hated it on two levels. First, how do you know I’m strong? Being able to get up in the morning = strength? But second, if I wasn’t able to get up in the morning, that would make me weak? Neither is true.

  • i guess there was a reason i didn’t bother to put on makeup today…i would have just cried it all off.

    i felt as though i was there with you in that room. thank you so much for sharing, and for being the person that most of us can never be.

  • danica says:

    Beautiful is what you are and what you do. I can only hope I can touch a life like you do on a regular basis with what I do in some way, some day.

  • real_bethy says:

    Thank you so much for the loving care that you showed this family and their baby. Thank you for the work that you do. Thank you for being a human being that gives me hope.

    **hugs**

  • bluealoe says:

    I have no words, except thank you.

    Jericho will NEVER be forgotten, and the work you do helps ensure that no child will be forgotten.

    I know how it feels to realize that no one will even think about them unless they elevate their death to an idealized story of angel wings and magical rules that took them away because they were “too beautiful for life”.

    Yes, exactly. The whole idea of “angel wings” just rubs me the wrong way.

  • skyrose says:

    **hugs** Posts like this make me so proud to know you. You are such an absolutely wonderful person. Really, in a lot of ways, but most importantly with your compassion and thoughtfulness in situations like this. I am sure that you gave a glimmer of hope in the middle of an awful experience. Not to mention giving them some beautiful memories of their child for years to come.

  • noelove says:

    Beautiful. Just beautiful.

  • nevaehrae says:

    I couldnt even begin to imagine those feelings. I pray for people who have suffered a loss like that, and as tough as a job that may be, it is also so equally rewarding. Ive known many to have lost a baby and have nothing but a birth and death certificate. You are so strong to be able to do such a tough yet wonderful thing.

  • lottiekate says:

    They were so lucky to have you with their son.

    The snappy nurse reminded me of something a friend of mine once told me. He was training to be a doctor at the time and he said you had to develop a sense of detachment otherwise you’d go nuts and couldn’t do your job properly. While this is true, I think some healthcare professionals, like nurse snappy, lose their compassion as well.

  • hopeless says:

    I want to comment on this because I feel it’s important to somehow…thank you for the work you do, if those are even the right words.

    It takes somebody with great courage and compassion to comfort families the way you do, to reach out to them, share your story and give them the memories they weren’t able to create themselves.

  • Anonymous says:

    this one just about killed me. i don’t think i could stand for my baby to be all alone in a nasty room like that, and still warm! wow- you are strong. that image of him in going to with me for a long time.

  • I would really like to see a photograph of Zander if you’re able to share them. This story has really touched me. Your work is admirable and I sincerely wish that my parents had been offered something — anything — similar when they lost my brother. Nobody thought of taking prints of his hands or feet; all they have are two washed out polaroids.

    Sorry – I’m apparently too choked up to even type something meaningful. I just really love that you do this and I understand your reasoning.

  • Anonymous says:

    beautiful…

    So glad you were there for those parents and little Zander. With so much anxiety about my baby girl due on thanksgiving I haven’t cried for Fiona in so long. I cried tonight for her, and Zander, and Jericho.

    I feel like I want to say more, but I’m lost in emotions. It felt good to cry, and its such a precious thing to have those photos, and I feel so thankful for all the people who work with NILMDTS.

    ~Lisa Hart

    • admin says:

      Re: beautiful…

      Thank you for this comment. πŸ™‚
      How long has it been since Fiona? And, are you on the MDC loss forums? I was just there today and was sure I saw someone talk about a baby “Fiona” in a thread I glanced past…

      • Anonymous says:

        Re: beautiful…

        Yes I am on the MDC lost forums, my username is Starmama πŸ™‚ We’ve spoken a few times in the past via email, close to when I lost Fiona (Dec 2008, I was 38 weeks along) and again after reposting your blog link on my facebook page (A primer in dealing with dead babies) and having my brother write back a nasty note to me along the lines of “She was just a fetus” and such.

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