Going Home by Angela Person
I walk for the first time, with a façade of confidence, down the hall toward the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit to meet a young couple whose first baby will soon take his last breath. The baby was born full-term two months ago with a rare congenital disorder that is, as doctors say in their dispassionate clinical way, “incompatible with life.” He has been on life support for the last two weeks, and today is the day that his mom and dad chose to say goodbye and let him go.
My official volunteer training is done. I know what to expect, in theory, and I know that this is probably going to be a little rough. I tell myself, “This is it. If I can get through this session I know I’ll be ok to do more.” Yesterday I answered a phone call from Maria, a soft-spoken social worker who asked if I could come to the hospital and provide what we call remembrance photography for this family. Without hesitation I agreed to be there at 1:00pm, an hour before the tubes were scheduled to be removed and the monitors disconnected. I told her I would stay for as long as the family wants me to stay.
Since I am new to this world of remembrance photography, I decided it would be a good idea to experience the full range of a photo session, starting while a baby is still alive and continuing after the baby passes away. My understanding is that most photo sessions like this are done after the baby has died. I have heard some people refer to them as angel babies. They are often born significantly premature, or stillborn, and some die while in the womb which requires mom to suffer through labor and give birth without the joy of welcoming new life when the labor and birth are done. When a volunteer like me is called on, it means that grieving parents, and sometimes siblings, are spending their last moments with a baby who will not be leaving the hospital to go home with them.
I keep reminding myself that I was invited. The parents told Maria they would be grateful to have photographs before and after the passing of their son and that they won’t mind if I stay a long time.
I pass by solemn faces in the hall, and I know they must be relatives and close friends who are here to say goodbye to the baby and offer embraces and prayers for the parents, grandparents, and each other. It is quiet here, despite the number of people I see. I don’t even hear newborn babies crying. I am so glad that I chose to wear shoes with soft soles. Like the nurses who are busy with their various duties, and Maria who is leading me, I walk with muted footsteps.
Inside the dimly lit NICU, Maria introduces me to Holly and Ryan, who are standing at the side of their sleeping baby, Noah. They look so young; no more than early twenties I would guess. Ryan warmly shakes my hand, and with fragile smiles they thank me for coming. We almost whisper our greetings as though we are in a chapel. I explain to them that I am here to create professional-quality, timeless black and white portraits for them, free of charge, and if they would like me to photograph anything specific they should please let me know.
“For the most part,” I tell them, “I will just do my best to stay out of your way and capture everything.”
Immediately, I wish I hadn’t said capture, but I guess it’s better than shoot or take. These are the words associated with photography. Today they seem not just inappropriate, but utterly wrong. There must be better language to describe what I am about to do. Perhaps instead of capture, I will preserve memories.
“And of course, if at any time you would like me to step out to give you privacy, please don’t hesitate to say so. . . . . .But before I can start, I’m so sorry, I need one of you to fill out and sign this consent form.”
I have never in my life despised our litigious society more than I do right now.
Ryan nods with understanding, quietly takes the form and sits down to fill it in. I can only imagine how many hospital and insurance forms they must have filled out and signed during the last two months. After permission is officially granted and liability waived, I make sure my gear is ready. An empty 32gb memory card is in the camera, fresh batteries are in the flash, the right lens is attached, settings are good, and my cell phone is set to “Do Not Disturb”. I’m ready.
Noah does indeed seem to be sleeping soundly under a soft, warm, glowing light, propped a little on his side, wearing a long onesie with feet. I try to imagine what his face looks like underneath the tubes and pieces of tape that spoil his little mouth and round cheeks.
Evidence of his disorder is not outwardly obvious and so it takes me a moment to notice the subtle deformity of his hands and feet. He is adorable.
Ryan is holding Noah’s hand while Holly explains to me that they had invited the pastor of their church to come and pray for them. Family and friends are out in the hall and waiting room, patiently waiting to be told when it’s time for them all to come in, to pray together, express sympathy and condolences, and say goodbye to Noah. I photograph various details of Noah sleeping in his big, clear plastic bassinet, a few close-ups of his and Ryan’s hands together, Ryan’s other arm is around Holly while they both attentively watch over Noah.
Ryan crouches down to watch closer and Noah opens an eye. He stares back at his dad for a minute or two, which brings smiles and a few fresh tears.
Noah’s doctor steps in and tells Holly and Ryan that a nurse will be able to begin the process of disconnecting everything soon. It’s time to invite everyone else in. Those solemn faces slowly enter the cozy NICU room to join Holly, Ryan, and baby Noah. Tissues in hand, they gather closely around one side of the bassinet. The pastor accompanies Ryan and Holly on the other side. As he begins to share words of comfort and compassion, I position a sturdy chair behind the gathered loved ones so that I can get a good angle from above to capture the scene. A nurse holds my elbow to steady me as I step up onto the chair. I am grateful for my wide-angle lens that allows me to fit in the frame the heads of the people gathered in the foreground, with Holly, Ryan, and pastor in the background, the glowing bassinet in the center.
The pastor offers up a humble prayer, pleading for peace and comfort to be bestowed upon the hearts of Holly and Ryan, and for Noah’s spirit to be welcomed by the Lord’s outstretched arms and into the home of his loving Father in Heaven.
Hushed “Amens” are shared, and family and friends take turns to touch Noah, kiss his forehead, and give hugs to Holly and Ryan. Holly and Ryan’s parents linger a little longer afterward, so I capture a few shots of them with their grandbaby before they slowly, reluctantly leave the room.
Holly tells a nurse that they are ready. With the help of a second nurse they begin to turn off monitors and remove wires. One of them carefully lifts Noah and transfers him to Holly’s arms as she is settled in a soft chair next to the bassinet. Another chair is set next to it for Ryan to be close. It takes quite a while for the nurse to gently peel back various stubborn pieces of tape from Noah’s face to free up the tubes for removal, but Noah is calm and doesn’t seem to be bothered. At long last, Noah is just Noah, and he is beautiful. Anyone who didn’t know would assume he’s perfectly healthy.
He is weakly breathing on his own, but they know it won’t be for long. The nurse will check his heartbeat every fifteen minutes. She steps away and Holly and Ryan just stare at their beautiful boy. They touch his pristine cheeks, his soft hair, his tiny ear, and his fingers as Holly cradles him close.
I hate to interrupt them, but I whisper anyway, “Would you like me to step out for a little while?” “No, please stay”, Ryan softly replies.
I am acutely aware of the loud click each time I press the shutter release. Fifteen minutes pass. Breathing has nearly stopped, heart is still gently beating. Ryan takes a turn holding Noah. He holds so gently but tightly, and with eyes closed touches his forehead to Noah’s.
Three nurses, who have been caring for Noah for the last two months, stand shoulder to shoulder silently together in the back of the room, wiping their eyes and noses.
Fifteen more minutes pass. Noah’s breath is gone, and with the faintest hint of a heartbeat he is placed back into Holly’s arms. A few tears run down her cheeks in the silence. Ryan tucks Holly’s long hair behind her ear, and uses a tissue to wipe her eyes and nose so that she won’t have to let go of Noah with one of her hands. Ryan embraces her and Noah together and rests his head on Holly’s shoulder. The three of them seem to melt together. One last family portrait.
No more breath. No more heartbeat. The three of them hold tightly together for a while longer. The nurses and I simply wait, all of us lost in suspended reverence.
Holly and Ryan tenderly place Noah’s lifeless body back in the bassinet. I take a few more photos while they carefully ink his feet and create footprints on fancy paper. One of the nurses begins wiping Noah’s head and face with a soft soapy sponge to cleanse his fine hair, and to remove any last traces of adhesive left behind by the strips of tape. I capture these last moments of Holly and Ryan watching over Noah in the bassinet, this time Holly rests her head on Ryan’s shoulder. They seem so peaceful and serene as they grieve together. I quietly gather my gear back into my camera bag. Maria and the nurses sincerely thank me for coming. I let Holly and Ryan know that I will have their images edited and ready for them in about two weeks.
“Thank you so much for coming, and for staying so long,” Ryan says to me, almost apologetically.
“You’re very welcome,” I answer. “God bless you and your sweet family”.
Holly and I grasp hands for a moment, a moment that lingers.
On my way out of the NICU and down the hall I pass some of the same solemn faces I had seen on my way in, some thank me as I pass. I whisper, “you’re welcome” as I make my way out. In the parking lot I think to myself, I did it. I got through it without being an emotional wreck. Only a tear or two fell from my eyes when Noah passed away, but I really held myself together. I can do this again.
I open the side door of my minivan to put my camera gear in the back seat, and I notice the crumbs, the empty juice box in the cup-holder, and the stained booster seat. I pause for a minute, then close the sliding door, climb into the driver seat, shut the door, and sob.
I take a moment to collect myself, breathe in deeply, and slowly exhale.
I clear my eyes, and turn the key.
Angela Person was born and raised in the Sacramento area of California and graduated from San Francisco State in 1999 with a Bachelor of Music degree. She then devoted several years to being a mom, volunteering in her kids’ classes and in the community, and teaching various music lessons. In 2015 she returned to academics and became a graduate student at Fresno State. She is currently finishing up a Master of Arts degree in English Literature, having completed her thesis which explores and analyzes the complexities of disgust and elevation in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. She enjoys the beauty and solitude of landscape and nature photography, plays oboe and flute as opportunities arise, sings in her church choir, loves to travel, and especially loves spending time with family. She hopes to find a job teaching writing courses at a local community college, and will happily continue her education by reading many great books and attending workshops, conferences, and classes whenever possible.