Light in the Darkness
The beauty of a photograph lies in the subtle weaving of darkness and highlights on a subject to bring out the true beauty. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) is a volunteer organization comprised of professional photographers who delicately manipulate the shadows of grief while introducing a glimpse of light into an otherwise very dark and tragic event.
At a family’s request, a NILMDTS affiliated, professional photographer will create heirloom portraits of a baby who will not be coming home from the hospital. Whether the infant has already passed away or is in the last moments of life, the NILMDTS Foundation gently offers families the opportunity to honor their child’s legacy by capturing the last moments a parent will spend with their infant. Parents are then given a DVD with sensitively retouched portraits.
Auburn photographers Tracy Young and Heather Carson joined the program about a year ago. Young has provided at least nine portraits to date to such families. “In spite of this dark moment in parents’ lives, we’re able to provide a small time for them to enjoy their baby. I can’t say it’s not hard to experience this moment of grief with a family, but it’s miniscule compared to the joy you provide to the parents as well,” says Young.
Both photographers donate their time and services. “I believe God is present everywhere, but during these sessions, He has such a sweet touch,” says Young, adding while the program is not faith based, she feels blessed by following God’s lead by donating her work. Because the Auburn/Opelika area does not have a Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, the phone calls to Young from East Alabama Medical Center (EAMC) involve early infant loss. “We try to be as unobtrusive as possible. Parents are so overwhelmed with grief it’s hard for them to think this is the only opportunity they have for a professional portrait of their baby,” says Young, adding as word spreads about the program, so does the desire for services. “I’m now driving to Columbus and Montgomery to serve these families.”
Auburn residents Bryant and Courtney Cloud experienced a normal pregnancy with their baby, Nate Garrison Cloud, until 20 weeks gestation. “I started having some unusual pains. I ended up in the hospital for four nights and was treated for kidney stones and basically kept at the hospital so they could manage the pain,” says Cloud. Nate was fine during the stay, and Cloud was released only to experience the most unbearable pain a few days later on May 5, 2009, at almost 23 weeks gestation.
“After calling labor and delivery, we realized it would be quicker for Bryant to drive me to the hospital. I knew the pain was so unbelievably intense that there was no way this wasn’t going to be bad for Nate,” says Cloud. Her water broke during treatment for the pain. “At 10:20 that night, Nate was doing great. At 4 a.m., everything was great. When they came in at 6 a.m., they couldn’t find a heartbeat.
“There are no words to describe that kind of pain to watch an entire family deal with such shock and grief,” says Cloud.
An EAMC nurse approached the couple with kindness and compassion and suggested NILMDTS photography. “My initial response was fear. I was scared of what looking at my dead baby would do to me. I was scared I couldn’t handle it. I am so thankful that Bryant and I agreed to let them (Carson and Young) take Nate’s pictures. The pictures say to the world that he was real, he was a baby. He looked like his daddy and had feet like his mama. Those pictures gave Nate such weight and validity that he probably wouldn’t have had if people could not have seen him.”
Dedee Manley, EAMC childbirth unit nurse manager, says the program helps start the healing process. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has touched so many lives since its implementation at EAMC. Through professional photography, family and friends are provided with a lifetime of tangible memories of their child,” says Manley. “The photos celebrate and bring honor to the child’s life. “Offering this service is also healing for healthcare providers. We know the impact these photos will have on many lives. It brings us peace to know we are helping others through one of the most difficult times of their lives with delicate pictures.”
East Alabama Living magazine marketing director, Ashley James, experienced the program during the short life of her daughter, Grace. Pregnant with multiples, James relocated to her hometown of Atlanta during her 20th week of pregnancy in 2006 and was admitted to the hospital at 26 weeks. “We knew at 24 weeks from an ultrasound that Grace had a heart defect. She and Courtney were small for their gestational age,” says James. The triplets were born April 22, 2006, at 30 weeks gestation. Grace weighed 1.7 pounds, Courtney 1.8 pounds and Katherine Ashley 2.12 pounds. The doctors diagnosed Grace with Pulmonary Atresia with Ventrical Septal Defect. The tiny baby was missing a valve. She had the first of two open heart surgeries weighing just 4 pounds. Through the next seven months, James was in Atlanta taking care of Katherine Ashley and Courtney as they were released from the hospital after several weeks. She tag-teamed with husband Cal, who jockeyed from Auburn to Eggleston Hospital’s Cardiac Intensive Care Unit (CICU) and NICU where Grace lived for the next seven months.
“It was a roller coaster. Grace would rally, and then we’d drop into a valley. Toward the end, her little body couldn’t fight back, and the staff prepared us for letting her go,” says James. The staff at Eggleston Hospital suggested NILMDTS as an opportunity for a family photograph. “We were very open to the portrait. Grace lived, and we wanted to document her little life,” says James. The portrait provided the James with the only photo of the triplets together.
A few weeks later, it was a portrait of Grace which allowed James to finally say goodbye to her daughter. “I remember it being very late. I had been with Grace all day, rocking her, just holding her. Cal and I had traded places as the quiet nights at the hospital were their special times together, so I had returned to the hotel beside the hospital. I clearly remember at about 1 a.m., I looked at an email from the photographer. It had this beautiful picture of Grace attached to it. I fell to my knees at that point and told God, ‘If you need Grace to be with you, I can let her go.’ Literally two minutes later, Cal called me on my cell phone to tell me we were losing Grace,” says James.
Courtney and Katherine Ashley are now thriving 4 year olds and in 2010, the family welcomed son, Calvin Ellington James, III. “I tell people all the time, I have four children. One of them just happens to live with Jesus. These pictures (from NILMDTS) validate that,” says James.
Cal echoes his wife’s feelings. “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep is a wonderful organization that offers families the blessed and rare opportunity to create a lasting legacy.” Cloud remains passionate about NILMDTS and what it does for families going through unimaginable circumstances. “No one ever expects to hear that their baby has died inside of them or to go to an ultrasound and hear their baby no longer has a heartbeat. I love that in this horrible and dark time, this organization is helping families take a step on the road to healing and closure,” she says.
NILMDTS is a 501(c)3 non-profit, volunteer organization. Photographers and digital retouch artists are needed.
For more information, visit www.nowilaymedowntosleep.com, www.youngphotographyandframing.com and www.carsonstudios.com.