The night was warm and dark as we pulled out from downtown Northampton, heading up the highway. It was just past 2 in the morning, less than 30 minutes since I’d gotten the call from the hospital. A baby had been born still, and they wanted photographs as soon as possible. I made the only call I needed to make, and within minutes both Erin and I were heading to a meeting spot in Northampton, ready to do the work that needed to be done.
Erin and I have known each other for more than eight years, our friendship having been born with the birth and death of Erin’s first daughter, Birdie. That March of 2007 Erin called for support not quite three weeks after Birdie’s passing, as I was decorating my own living daughter’s first birthday cake. She was among the first mothers that I sat with in early grief. I was instantly drawn to Erin’s passion, her intimate, gentle love for her daughter, and her fierce understanding that she would somehow honor Birdie’s memory. We were drawn together by our first daughters, shadow girls who would somehow live with us forever, even when they had left us physically. A quiet, wise friendship was born. For each, the other possessed an experience and understanding that every other loving, caring person in our lives fortunately lacked. We knew what it was like to fall in love, give birth, and say goodbye. We knew what it meant to rebuild piece by piece, day by day, tear by tear. We both knew the joy, euphoria, and incredible risk of the subsequent children we were both fortunate enough to welcome.
When the idea began to percolate to incorporate our own team of photographers for Empty Arms, modeled after the incredible work of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, I knew that Erin would be a critical player on our team. It was not for many years after Birdie’s birth that I learned of Erin’s incredible skill as an artist, and at that same time she began to muse that eventually, when she was ready, she knew that photography was the way she would transform her love for Birdie into a gift for someone else. Erin herself had been given the gift of gorgeous photographs of Birdie, taken by a NILMDTS photographer who drove in from Worcester. Knowing how difficult it can be to access photographers in our area, she knew this would be her calling. And indeed, it is.
While our photography program is still in its infancy and development, what we can accomplish for a family is already life changing. And so it was, that on a dark, wet, warm Tuesday morning, Erin and I drove up the highway to meet a newborn baby. We entered his room, and his family’s life, at just past three. The lights were low, and everyone’s voices were quiet as we entered and introduced ourselves. It was late, and everyone was exhausted, overwhelmed, and in shock. Our goal was to capture this moment, to photograph this tiny piece of time that would live forever in this mother and father’s memory, that would become the most tangible piece of their son’s life story.
Entering into this space is different every time. When a person’s life falls apart so catastrophically in such a short period of time, there is a feeling of being lifted from the earth as we know it. Time stops, and there is a lull as one reconsiders their past, present and future. The past, when they expected so much. Their present, where they are faced with this beautiful, breathtaking, agonizing love for a child who cannot stay. And their future, which they cannot bear to face. For each person, they are reduced to the core of who they are: they follow base instincts and are guided by those around them to create an interaction. They are in shock, in this strange, timeless void, and there is a wide range of reactions. Some people are so frozen with terror and grief, they can hardly interact with their baby. They are limited by the intensity of this moment, and everything feels too overwhelming and sad. Some people are full of pragmatic questions and thoughts, their minds racing with memories of the pregnancies, what-ifs from the past few days or weeks, and fears and anxieties about what the future might hold. And then there are the others, who are somehow able to sit quietly right in the moment and experience their baby for who he is, what he is, right now. This was what we found that night.
A mother lay holding her newborn son. He had died the day before, and she had labored all afternoon and into the night. He was beautiful, fair, with blond hair and soft, perfect skin. She cradled him in her arms, and her thumb stroked his cheek. The light was low, and her eyes barely lifted from her son’s face upon our arrival. She was here, in this moment, taking in this little boy in the time she would have. We introduced ourselves and our role, and our work, but it soon became easily apparent what this evening would bring. We were but witnesses to a mother’s love, and we would drink in this time.
We moved silently, quietly. Erin had her camera, and I helped the mother find the perfect angles, the perfect experiences with her son. We unwrapped him from his blankets and laid him on her bare chest, her skin warming his newborn self as her cheek rested on his tiny, soft cap of hair. We focused on hands, ears, toes, and knees. His father, who had been sleeping, awoke and joined mother and son in the bed. They created a perfect triangle, two heads together gazing down at their baby boy. Erin captured the mother’s fingers on the baby’s, the dad’s hand on baby’s tiny back. When we spoke, it was quiet and direct. The baby was diapered, dressed, and held some more. He was swaddled, and unswaddled, kissed, cuddled, and stroked. The two parents surrounded their child with their love. We admired each and every part of him, as any people would in the presence of a newborn. Our voices were mesmerized, quiet, and slow. Everything felt sacred.
For every time I have done this work, there is a crystal-clear moment when I realize our work is done. That this family needs the room to themselves, that it’s time for us to go. Certainly hundreds upon hundreds of photographs had been taken. We had captured everything that this mother and father hoped to capture. At just before five, it was time. I spoke, and told them we would take a few more shots of the three of them together, and leave them to be a family. They nodded, and we did just that.
In the end, Erin and I arrived back in Northampton at first light. Our car ride back was quiet and thoughtful, but infused with one strong knowledge: what we could give this family, in that moment, was beyond value. Here, in the dark of night, two mothers who knew this grief had entered their world. We had affirmed their son’s perfection, his reality, we had witnessed his life and existence. We had called him by name, touched his smooth skin, stroked his downy hair. We had quietly respected the beauty of this moment, of this tiny child and his two parents, and Erin had captured what she could with her art.
A photographer who works for NILMDTS once told me, “People always ask me, ‘How can you do that work?’ And I tell them, ‘After you’ve done it, the question becomes how could you NOT?’” This is the feeling I am left with. Whenever I am blessed to enter a family’s space in this situation, to meet their child, and help them say hello and goodbye, I feel an overwhelming sense of privilege. Is it difficult? Of course. Is it sad? Without doubt, every single time. But each time, I am filled to the brim with a sense of having offered something truly from my heart. There is nothing like it. I am so grateful to Erin Long for giving herself and her work to these families. I know she will smile quietly reading this, knowing that what she gives to others comes truly from her heart and feels like the most important work on earth. And for each family, in each moment that she captures, it actually is.