I can’t remember how I learned about Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. A photography forum or an email, perhaps. I do remember it was 2010 and I was a year into my business and the youngest of my four children was about to turn one. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (I’ll refer to it as NILMDTS from here on out) is a non-profit organization with a network of volunteer photographers who provide free professional photographs for families facing an infant loss. In many cases, photographers are contacted last minute to photograph babies who passed away due to stillbirth. Sometimes a baby is on life support and is photographed with his parents gently cradling him, tubes and complicated medical machinery and all. In other instances, the babies are tragically born too soon to survive or have “incompatible with life” diagnoses and the photographers arrive either before or shortly after the babies pass away, surrounded by the love and comfort of their parents.
I immediately thought, “Wow, that is so hard.” I couldn’t imagine walking into a hospital room to be faced with so much sadness. Yet I kept returning to the NILMDTS website to read more about the organization. When I was in high school, I babysat for a family who’s fifth baby was stillborn. I remember how excited they were for that baby to be born, and then in the sad days after he arrived without a breath, I watched the older children as the parents had to attend to funeral arrangements for a baby they never were able to rock to sleep in their arms. Years later, as a new mother, I met a woman in a parenting forum who lost her first baby to stillbirth – a cord accident – at the very end of her pregnancy. I recalled how she wished she had better photos of her baby, yet how much she cherished the photos she DID have of her son because it was all she had to remember of the life he had in her womb and in her heart.
Slowly, “I don’t think I could do that,” turned into, “I think I could help these parents.” I felt more confident that I could serve the families in their time of need. Without knowing exactly what I was in for (how could I?) I submitted an application to be considered for NILMDTS and was accepted. This was in 2011.
My first call I cried all the way to the hospital. I didn’t know how I could possibly speak to the grief-stricken parents or photograph a baby who would never coo or smile or clutch his mother’s finger. I felt panicked and questioned my decision to volunteer. I had a small hope that the parents would turn me away when I arrived so I could go back home and pretend nothing had ever happened.
And then I arrived at the nurses’ station at the labor and delivery unit and they gently and calmly told me the parents’ names, the baby’s name, and explained a little bit about what had happened. I took cues from their strong but gentle demeanor and walked into the hospital room with one goal – I would photograph this baby and give the parents a memory of the baby they’d dreamed about for nearly 40 weeks as he grew in his mother’s belly. How I felt didn’t matter – only providing the family with these images mattered.
I left the hospital feeling so incredibly sad, but I felt more strongly than ever that this was an important task. I knew I was volunteering for NILMDTS because I could do this. I didn’t want to do it, and I wished so much that the organization didn’t have a need to exist, but I could do it.
Six months went by without me being able to take another call. The requests from the NILMDTS coordinators either came at times I wasn’t able to leave on short notice or were at hospitals too far away from me to get there before other volunteers could arrive.
Then on the morning of March 14, 2012, my brother called. I could tell immediately that something was wrong – I suspected one of my grandparents was ill or worse. Then my brother breathlessly told me that the baby he and his wife had been expecting for 35 weeks was gone. No heartbeat. They were on their way to the hospital to be induced. Without hesitation I said I would go to be with them and then I asked, through my tears, “Do you want me to take the baby’s photos?”
I had never understood why I felt so strongly that I should join NILMDTS, but that morning I knew. My brother’s baby, a girl they named Kaci Lee, came into the world completely still but completely perfect and beautiful. Her mom had complications from the delivery and had to be rushed to the OR right after Kaci arrived, so I photographed my precious niece so that she would know what her daughter looked like right after she was born. My hands shook and sometimes I had to wipe away tears before continuing. Kaci looked so peaceful, just like a sleeping newborn, we all kept saying we expected her to start stirring or to cry. It was one of the saddest days of my life. Losing a child is something no parent should ever have to experience and I was stunned it had happened to my family.
Here are some of the photos of precious Kaci. A tiny little peanut with lots of hair. She looked like her mom. We are doing a walk/5K in Kaci’s honor in September and my brother and his wife said I could share Kaci’s story. Because she is their baby, even if she’s not in their arms.
It’s hard to talk about NILMDTS to others. It’s a sad subject and it, understandably, makes people uncomfortable. Some find it unsettling that we take photos of babies who’ve passed away. It makes sense to feel that way. I know how much the parents cherish these memories of their babies gone too soon, though. I hope no one reading this ever has need for NILMDTS. I wish no one would ever have to experience this pain. But if you or someone you know ever has to face this unbearable loss, I hope someone from NILMDTS can be there to offer you a memento of the short time the baby had in this world.
I recently did maternity photos for a family who received devastating news that their baby boy, Rocco, had an “incompatible with life” condition. While they were in my studio they told me all about Rocco and all the people who were praying for him and rooting for him to be a miracle and defy the odds given to him. Rocco’s mom had her hands on her baby belly the whole time, sometimes talking to her son, sometimes looking down with love and amazement at him as he moved inside her. Rocco’s big sister was there, his daddy was there, and we smiled as we celebrated Rocco’s life. They told me about the Facebook page they’d created, now with over 800 people following Rocco’s journey.
With Rocco’s parents’ permission, I am sharing the link to their page and some photos from the maternity session. Rocco is scheduled to arrive tomorrow morning, and as his mom said to me, “We are very open about everything and created Rocco’s page for all the support, prayers, love & light he can get. It truly is amazing how many people are already rooting for him. Thank you so much for asking and sharing his story.” I hope he can get even more people sending prayers and thoughts in his direction.
This is what prompted me to write about NILMDTS today. Each of these babies I or one of my fellow volunteers photographs has a story their parents will want to remember forever. These babies bring joy to their parents and families and communities, they remind me that the world is not always fair but always loving. The babies live in their mothers for a short while and in the hearts of their parents always, no matter what.
Send your thoughts to Rocco and his parents this week. He is undoubtedly loved.