At Work Stitches of Love: Photographing Deceased Neonates
“I take these photographs so she’ll be able to remember the time when she had two heartbeats. Tears bucket down her face.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities
I drive out to Tracy and William’s home. Me, the grim reaper: black coat, black clothing, black backdrop, black lights, black bag. The costume usually means I can fade into the background at weddings and births, but in these circumstances, it looks menacing. We sit, sipping tea from dainty cups, while Tracy trickles out her story about her baby with an anomaly, and how their whole life is cracking.
“It wasn’t supposed to happen to us,” she says, rubbing her stomach.
It’s never supposed to happen to these couples whose compromised babies I photograph. I reach across to touch the back of her hand, her hand full of life, love, grief and, even, I imagine, lingering hope; my death hand has the bad stories in its phalanges, its metatarsals, its carpals, and synovial lining. Maybe I can only love death, I think, as she gets up and carries our plates to the sink.
Maybe I’m happiest when things around me are crumbling like soda biscuits. There are things at my home that aren’t supposed to be happening, too. My wife and I, together for more than a decade, are finding ourselves at loose ends after challenging the Canadian government for same-sex marriage rights, and winning. We’ve spent three years in the limelight, turning like figures on a music box, showing only our good side. All our shared activities have been coincidentally dashed—dancing (my health), gardening (her interest), political action (case over), kids (moved out)—plus, I don’t want to be a writer. All we really have in common anymore is how we’re dismantling everything we’ve created.
I get my roller bag, follow Tracy upstairs. She is tall, thin, pale with a hard small belly. She’s not far along, but enough to show. I take these photographs so she’ll be able to remember the time when she had two heartbeats. Tears bucket down her face. William comes home from work and I watch his solicitousness. Doing this shoot, I’m making their loss too real, and I know it, and I am ashamed. William is tender and wary and halfway to brittle himself as he stands with Tracy in front of a mirror, his hand curving around her.
I don’t have a clue what love is. This is what I’ve been noticing during these sessions. I like to think I love passionately, wisely, fairly, crankily, impatiently, that I love in whatever guise—but I fear I squander. I am scared of what’s going on at home. Maybe there’s some kind of apex you surmount after which love is downhill. Love, even while I stand documenting it, slides through my fingers like the strand of knitting yarn I always work.
The next time I talk to Tracy, we’re in BC Women’s Hospital, and it’s the middle of the night, a clear night of crater moon.
When the telephone rings, I know what it is. I hate that it’s time, but I am also glad the couple’s waiting is over, Tracy’s labor is over. I have my kit packed: releases to sign, the lenses I need (50 1.4, 100 macro, 24-70 2.8), the flash and modifiers, and camera bodies which must be swabbed with antibacterial cleaner when I leave because of MRSA and other acquired hospital infections. The car needs warming up; it sputters out of its parking spot and back into the new one just off Oak Street. I blink into fluorescence, roll past Labor and Delivery, down the hall to the elevator. Push for Evergreen Ward.
Night wards are quiet, so quiet.
“Private,” says the sign on the door.
Turner’s Syndrome, heart defects, Potter’s syndrome, neural tube defects, Amniotic banding, Pompe Disease, Hydrocephalus, Niemann-Pick Disease (Type A), Anencephaly, Trisomy 18 and other chromosomal disorders, Cyclopia, Horner’s Syndrome, placental abruption, asphyxiation, prematurity. Infants arrive in our world without brains, with their intestines outside their bellies, with multiple legs, with single eyes, with looped umbilical cords, with body parts missing or fused or distorted.
Sometimes, I am traumatized.
I have a long time to sit in the waiting room if there are family members arriving from afar who want to be included in photographs. I knit baby hats and baby sweaters as people squeak past me; gurneys sally past with moms and all their stories. Knit one, purl one. The long string of yarn down to my knitting bag is umbilical; it ties me to hope. It ties me to a future. I can learn to love better, I think, because babies are being born, healthy babies, squalling babies, and families are being formed and not always broken. I see newborns in my studio every week, less than five days old, and I wait, I wait. I believe they will crack me open where my sorrow is so large.
“She’s being induced,” says a nurse over the telephone for one case. “So probably forty-eight hours.”
“The parents don’t want to be present,” a social worker tells me one time. “They’re not planning on seeing him at all. I want you to send the pictures to my office just in case.”
“Are you back home yet? Can you come back? The other twin just died.”
“While you’re here, we have another family with a loss. They’ve been asking for a photographer, too.”
I photograph for an immigrant mother alone on Christmas day. I photograph a girl of ten months who watches me, her eyes begging for my help, as her breathing tube comes out and she dies. I photograph deceased children whose parents are seeing and holding them for the first time without tape and tubes and bandages.
William opens the door to my beating black heart. What is love? I wonder. The baby hat I’m knitting, way too big for a preemie like this, is in my camera bag, my needles clicking. Even though William has been awake for two days, and his hair sticks straight up, there is a cowl over the room. It is like a mirage on a highway. Tracy is gowned in blue, crying in the bed where she just gave birth. The baby is their little linebacker, their little red engine. He is very small. My voice goes soft. We have talked about the kinds of shots we want, so I take those. Baby alone, close-ups of his untouched feet, his unsullied hands.
“Hey, little guy,” I say, my tone a lullaby, “you have your daddy’s hair, your mama’s nose. Look at your gorgeous fingers. Look at those perfect fingernails.”
I wrap his mini-hand around his mama’s index finger. I lift him up in the crook of Tracy’s shoulder, curled into her neck, and take photographs of the three of them together. The three of them, the baby, their shoulders bare.
“He is so beautiful,” I say.
“I know,” says Tracy looking at me. “Isn’t he so beautiful?”
We regard each other. Something happens to our cowl; it shrink-wraps us four as one and causes all of us to gasp. Though none of us knows how we’ll go on from here, I feel love taking another chance.
When I leave the hospital and go home, when I’ve cleaned the gear and am in bed beside my wife, I see how she and I have lost each other, how many dropped stitches we have now, how many holes we have in our sweater of our love. Even under the covers, I’m cold.