February 25, 2018
“You just assume that God is going to save the child. But it seems to be that this time, He’s not going to do that. And I don’t know why.”
His words pierced my heart. I looked over at my friend as he finished zipping up his scrubs and buried his cheek in his palm. I was speechless. You can’t hide behind a camera when someone says something like that. Tears filled my eyes as I mustered up a quiet, “I know.” His wife Michelle, had just walked back for her c-section and we were the only two people in the room. You could hear the seconds tick away on the wall clock. I tried to give Clint some privacy as what I assume to be seriously painful thoughts and realities raced through his mind. But I was there. For better or worse, I had a job to do…
Some months before this, Michelle and Clint were just a married couple in my small group expecting a baby. Nothing special about that, right? People have babies every day all over the world. Then, in a moment, it’s not just a boring pregnancy. Michelle and Clint learned on the same day that they were told they were having a boy, that he also had a severe case of Dandy Walker Syndrome and would not live. Michelle and Clint were faced with the devastating decision of whether to continue to carry this precious baby or to terminate the pregnancy. Believing all life is sacred and a gift from The Lord, they chose to carry Luke for as long as they could, going against the advice of their doctor.
When I heard the news, I didn’t know Clint or Michelle all that well. Things like this tend to bring people together though. And as I sat in my home with a broken heart for them, I felt this tug to offer birth photography. I had done some in the past but nothing like what this would require. Before I could talk myself out of it, I wrote the offer in a card and gave it to Michelle who immediately accepted. She later told me,”Who in their right mind would sign up for this? I fully expected you to not follow through.”
But, how does one prepare themselves for something like this? Volunteering to step into the saddest and darkest place a person can be–and documenting it? You’re not just a photographer in these moments. You’re the person that’s going to create a history and witness to a person’s entire life. And, you’re also a human being. Death does that to you. It reminds you how human you are. You have to get the job done and done well all the while dealing with your own mortality and the fragility of life. Yeah, I wasn’t sure either.
Michelle carried Luke week in and week out. While she went to the doctor, she also went to the funeral home; preparing for her son’s death as she felt him kick. Picking out a burial plot and buying burial outfits while the rolls and jabs continued. “I was hit with the finality months before Luke was born.” She and Clint had meetings with doctors and counselors; social workers and funeral directors.
The day for Luke to be born finally arrived and Michelle fully expected me to back out. I did the opposite. I volunteered to drive she and Clint to the hospital. The night before, I set two alarms. I plugged in my batteries, cleared my memory cards, laid out my clothes. I was doing anything I could do to better prepare myself for the thing I could never be fully prepared for.
As we got closer and closer to the hospital the next morning, the conversation in the car grew less and less. We got to the parking lot and Michelle tells me getting out of my car was one of the hardest things she’s ever had to do. “I was going into the hospital with my baby but I knew I wouldn’t be leaving with him.”
Michelle changed her clothes and got hooked up to all the wires and contraptions. People trickled in to examine and explain. I pulled out my camera, thankful for the protection it offered me. It was a safe haven to hide behind during those awkward, painful moments when Michelle had to explain to an innocent nurse that her baby wouldn’t need to be circumcised because he wouldn’t live.
When it was time for Michelle to go back, her case worker came and asked me if I’d like to go into the operating room. I practically yelled yes and before I knew it, I was putting on scrubs. Clint and I paced while we waited for the all clear. The shutter on my camera was loud and intrusive. It was in that moment I tried to put my camera down but it begged to be picked up. I had to tell this story. So I carried on.
We were escorted back to the operating room and I was given instruction on where to stand. It was quiet except for the machines going off every once in awhile. No music or happy chatter. All the nurses and specialists waited. Clint sat close to Michelle, held her hand and remained steadfast for her. He was a complete pillar of strength the entire day. Even when he was crumbling, he stood tall and strong.
Then, the moment came. I breathed deeply as I saw his little head and face emerge. I put my camera to my eye and began snapping until I heard his sweet lungs pierce the silence. He cried. Loud and strong; he let everyone know he was here. Michelle gasped for air and wept. Every doctor and nurse teared as they did exactly what they were trained to do. I tried my best to hold it together. I failed. He was as beautiful as any baby I had ever seen. Fearfully and wonderfully made. Luke Robinson Forester. The doctor who delivered him asked to meet him. And as she left the OR, I could see her professionalism melt away and the heart of a mother emerge. She fell into a puddle in a nearby chair just outside of the OR.
I left the operating room soon after this and went for air in the waiting room and was greeted by several members of our small group sitting together praying and waiting. They sat there the entire day offering support for Clint and Michelle. I marveled at God’s goodness as pastors, friends and mentors from our church came in and out steadily all day bringing coffee, lunch…hugs. People took off work, canceled plans, rerouted their day to be there and fill in the gaps at home. Looking back, we, our little group, were doing exactly what God had called us to. We were weeping with those who weep and mourning with those who mourn. God was using each of us to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ as he ministered to the hearts of Clint and Michelle. The presence and nearness of the Body of Christ and God Himself on that day has forever changed me and shown me such a purpose for my life and my church. One I’ve never bore witness to, and been a part of in such a way before.
As the day went on, Luke was held, sung to, snuggled, kissed and prayed over. He was given a bath and an outfit to wear. Precious boy. I was there dutifully snapping everything I could, desperately hoping not to miss anything. Doctors came in to check on Michelle and Luke as we all waited for the inevitable to come. They gave Luke some oxygen so he could breathe a little easier and Michelle and Clint were able to introduce Luke to his big sister Finley.
At 9:30 that same night, Luke left the arms of his mother and went into the arms of our heavenly Father. Michelle told me later, “Whether you get to keep them on earth or keep them in Heaven, that is your child. The time apart is temporary. He is ours forever, just not right now.” She held him after he passed. Kissed his sweet face and tried to memorize all that she could before she finally had to let him go. Michelle later told me, “The funeral was not the hardest part. The worst part is when you have to hand your child over to never hold him again. That was the hardest thing in my entire life.” I think for minute as I write this and I can’t bear it.
Michelle didn’t take a single photo that day. She was fully present for her son. Not one person took a photo except for me. All the photos Clint and Michelle have of sweet Luke are ones that I took. The responsibility and seriousness of that has not escaped me. It was the honor of my life to do this for them. I still can’t believe they let me. I was able to create an album and a wooden folio box for them. Their photos of Luke will be beautiful forever with the way I’ve made and preserved them. I’ve never been more proud of a body of work.
“These photos are priceless. I didn’t have the chance to memorize Luke. But I have the photos to remind me. They are beautiful.”
When I asked Michelle if she was glad she and Clint allowed me to step in and create this she said,”If I didn’t have these photos, there would be less of him that I would get to keep. And I didn’t get to keep much. But I have those photos. I have pictures from his entire life.”
Beyond capturing this precious life, my heart is forever knit to hers in a unique way. When you walk through something like this with someone, you can’t help but become dear friends. I’ll never forget how it felt to be there with them. I’ll never forget the sound of Luke’s cry as he was born.
But mostly, I’ll never forget what Clint said to me right before we walked back to the operating room…”One day we will know why this happened. And God will still be good.”
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