Still Standing

Empty Frames

“Do you want to see her?” The question, for some reason, was odd and unnecessarily forced through tight lips by the nurse with glasses.

“What the hell is wrong with you? Of course we want to see her!” My mind screamed with misguided anger.

My mouth let out an edited response, “Yes, we would like to see her.”

The nurse cleared her throat. “Okay, we will bring her in. Do you know if you want pictures?”

Do I want pictures of my daughter? My mind was instantly furious once again. Then it violently tossed me into a blurry nightmare as I was swept away by the thought of all the pictures that would never be taken.

There would be no naked baby screaming on the table with nurses and doctors swarming around her to clean her off. There would be no picture of a smiling mom and dad holding her while her eyes adjusted to this newly found world. There would be no pictures with the proud big brother and sister. There would be no picture of the brand new outfit we had only recently decided on as being good enough for her hospital departure. There would be no picture of her learning to use her mouth while we claimed it was her first smile. There would be no picture of a first birthday, cake smeared across her face, her first steps, her first Easter dress, her first day of school, her last day of school, her wedding – there would be no pictures at all.

I snapped out of the daydream and looked at my wife. I didn’t know how to answer the question — neither did she.

The nurse noticed our hesitation. “We can take a few pictures here for you. They will be done carefully and we can put them in an envelope for you. You don’t have to look at them now, but at least you can have them. Maybe you will look at them later, maybe never – it’s up to you.”

I heard her speak but I couldn’t put the two thoughts together. It is my daughter, so why is there hesitation to take a photo of her? I had hundreds of photos at home on the desktop of all of our children, yet now I sat debating if I wanted any of our newly delivered daughter. This was yet another unsettling moment in a whirlwind of torment that had once again brought my heart to its knees.

When the doctor said ‘her heart has stopped’ we thought that was the extent of the ordeal. 24-hours later we sat dumbfounded as we stared at funeral home packets, financial aid paperwork and now, struggling to decide if we want pictures to be taken of our still daughter.

The grief you feel after losing a child suspends you high above anything you have ever understood. Each choice you make tempts you with the horror that the very weak grasp you have on the remaining pieces could crumble at any moment. The fear that unites with confusion has no words to give it just explanation. When we weren’t afraid of falling by making the wrong choice, we were terrified of drowning by the waves of sorrow that engulfed us both. It would not end.

We finally agreed to let them take pictures of her. We didn’t know what that meant. We didn’t know where it would be done. We didn’t ask anything else about it. I spent all my energy and time attempting to hold my wife together, and she spent all her energy and time wishing that this day had never shown up on our calendar.

Six hours after our daughter was stillborn, the nurse brought in a round box. Within it, we pulled out a small white envelope. Our eyes glazed as we flipped through the pictures. I loved her but I didn’t want to see her like this. I did not want to see her without life. I only noticed the purple hue, the sealed eyes and the stillness of what should have been a screaming and kicking baby.  Oh, how beautiful she was, but that only added to the pain. The pictures I viewed had ironically reinforced that fact that she would always be still. I could not look at them any longer. I could not allow any more pictures to be taken. I let fear control that decision and I regret it to this day.

I held her several times, but I never uncovered her. I was in a battle with the coldness that had taken over her small body. I remember lifting parts of the blanket to try to look at her, but I never completely removed the pink and white striped blanket. I wasn’t ashamed, but I didn’t want her to be cold. I hate that cold. I still feel it when my mind escapes to that memory. I could not keep her warm!

The guilt I feel today, knowing that I did not take the time to study her whole body is crippling. The seven photos we have of her are a constant reminder that I should have taken seven hundred, seven thousand more. Why didn’t I take more? Why did I let the fear of her stillness prevent me from filling up that memory card in our camera? How am I supposed to remember what she looked like when the walls are full of empty picture frames?

On this side of the loss, if I could talk to parents that were in a hospital room about to deliver a still-born baby, I would beg them to take pictures. Oh how I would love to have pictures.