We call them ‘framily’…those friends that have become as much our family as the ones we were born into. We spend Thanksgivings and Christmases together, vacation together, watch each other’s kids grow up, and share in all the joys and sorrows.
It was April of 2014 and I was so looking forward to sharing one of those joys as my dear friends Peyton and Justin were preparing to welcome their third baby. After two beautiful little girls, I had my fingers crossed that they would get their little boy this time.
I was several states away, but Peyton’s mom kept me updated as labor progressed. I went to bed on the 5th just knowing that we’d have a baby by sunrise. While that did hold true, nothing went as we had hoped. There were complications, a crash c-section, and one perfect baby boy. That moment-the one where we went from anticipating a brand-new baby to the one where we knew he wasn’t going to make it through the day-was so sudden and so tragic that I could almost feel the earth shake. James died in Peyton’s arms a mere 18 hours after he was born.
With my husband heading out the door for a deployment, I couldn’t get there for two more days. I never got to meet James in person. Peyton had hired a birth photographer, so although they didn’t get pictures from NILMDTS, they have a collection of gorgeous professional photos. So much of those few days didn’t seem real and it wasn’t until I saw those photos that it truly sank in. He was real, he was here, and now he’s gone. Those pictures made real his entire 18 hours of life and showed me not only what he looked like, but documented the incredible amount of love he had surrounding him during his brief time here. I couldn’t imagine a world in which those memories didn’t exist, and I knew then that I had to do something to honor the little boy that I had come to love so much.
I applied to NILMDTS on what would have been James’ first birthday and haven’t looked back. I’ve served in a few different roles in the organization, but my favorite is being a photographer. It’s hard to articulate how rewarding this work is. Yes, it can be absolutely heartbreaking, but this work gives back so much more than I put into it.
What I treasure most about being invited into those rooms is helping parents see and parent their baby, in whatever way possible in the short time they have. To help squeeze a lifetime of memories into a handful of hours. I always make sure that I point out cute noses and tiny fingers. Or crazy hair and crooked toes. I try to get them involved by doing things like dressing or diapering their baby. I can do those things myself-I do them all the time-but it makes such a huge difference for them to be able to parent their baby, even if it’s not how they had hoped to do so.
I always engage extended family in the room as well. Grandparents almost always just want to be helpful. They are watching their child lose a baby and they want more than anything to fix it. They love helping even in little ways like putting on a hat or wiping a nose. They just want to do something. When I see them, I always think back to James’ grandparents and how it felt to watch their hearts break, too.
I can always feel a shift once families are brought into the process more. When I get there, baby is usually in a bassinet somewhere in the room. Everyone is in shock. But if I do my job right, by the time I leave they are almost always holding their baby and checking him or her out. Dad might be so proud because the baby has his crooked toes or mom might be beside herself because she KNEW the baby was going to have red hair. To be able to lead them to that is the greatest gift I can think to give someone. And all the while, I’m quietly capturing it on camera.
These families may never remember me or a thing about me, but I’ll never forget a single one of them. And while I’ll always wish more than anything that James was still here on this earth, I’m so humbled by the experiences that his death has brought about in my life as well as the lives of others who loved him. His memory lives on both through my work with NILMDTS and through the nonprofit that Peyton and her friend Carol co-founded, Gathering Hope. That nonprofit, honoring both James and Carol’s son Matthew, has reached thousands of grieving mothers through their events in Texas, Oklahoma, and Delaware. More information on that can be found at www.gatheringhope.net