the following was written on 8/10/04. Because today is the anniversary of his birth/death and because I know my friend is feeling the loss and is certain her grief is invisible to the world, I wanted to let her know that I remember. I will always remember…
How do I even begin to tell this story? So much changed in so many people’s lives in a period of 9 months. All because of a tiny life too fragile to survive outside the safety of his mother’s womb.
C was just a mother of my son’s friend. One day I over heard a conversation between them that she was pregnant, again. This would make #8. Now the natural reaction for most will be to gasp but where I come from it is not at all uncommon for a devout LDS woman to do this. If you want to be shocked then I will tell you that C is 43, thin with the skin of a 20 year old and long gorgeous hair. *That* is truly worth a gasp. She seemingly appears physically unaffected by child bearing… (*bitch*)
When I asked her son how she was doing he told me she was really sick and was bed ridden by fatigue and nausea. The latent Mormon in me immediately wanted to make a casserole… so I did. It took the form of 7 lasagnas, homemade and frozen to yummy perfection. Little did I know the night I took them to her I would be meeting my best friend. She was ecstatic and thanked me. She spoke a bit about how I had just raised the bar on active community service (big deal with us Mormons). I smiled and told her I would really rather lower it a bit and play limbo. We both laughed at each other and at the obvious chasm between our life experiences. I left her with well wishes and an offer of “call me anytime”.
Fast forward a few months. She called looking for her son. I casually asked how she was doing. I wasn’t prepared for the answer. She began to tell me the story of Trisomy 18. About her decision to carry the baby to term. Her brave voice, still full of a mother’s hope and religious faith shook me. I was moved to share my story of 1987, Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and another tiny life who would never survive it’s inherent fragility. The cultural chasm was suddenly filled with the common ground of an ache from carrying a child you will never take home. Our fate was sealed that day. I knew where she was going. I didn’t want her to go alone.
As our friendship grew so did her faith in me. She began to tell me who she really was. Her inner struggles, her intense dissatisfaction of her role she had been playing in the her 41 years of living. It didn’t take long before I realized I was watching a cataclysmic change happening inside this woman. That she had chosen me to be her witness. I was humbled by the priviledge and haunted by it’s responsibility.
It was too daunting for her to consider “what comes next” with regard to the baby, so I researched cemeteries for her. She was paralyzed with fear so I compiled a list of mortuaries with financial facts. I put them in a sealed envelope and labeled it “Take to the hospital, don’t open until needed”. I delivered it to her one beautiful June afternoon. We didn’t talk about the envelope. We never have.
I remember looking at her that day and being moved by how incredibly beautiful she was. She looked perfect. I asked her if she would like any pregnacy pictures taken of her. She never had any with her other 7. I was worried the question might have been inappropriate but much to my delight she was excited by my offer. We spent an afternoon in the Botanical Gardens. It was an experience I will not soon forget. I think we both were consumed by the thick irony of how beautiful the world can look while harboring such tragedy.
Not long after that she called and asked me to take pictures at the hospital “when the time came”. I suddenly felt as if someone had knocked me to the floor. Up until that moment our babies, their deaths, our grief were all emotional in context. Suddenly, the death of the baby was tangible, it was physical. Suddenly I was back in 1987 and scared out of my mind. I just wasn’t prepared. I don’t “do” dead bodies well. I was so frightened of what my baby would look like that I refused to see him, hold him. That fear rose up inside me as I heard myself agree to do it and her gratitude on the other end.
I was the only non family member at the hospital. I waited for the news with everyone else trying to quell my personal fears. Someone came and told us that she had delivered the baby. He had never taken a breath. The family exploded in grief, I however was overtaken with self absorbed panic. I walked away to give the family privacy and found my eyes darting back and forth like a trapped animal looking for the nearest exit. When the nurse came to get me and lead me back I was clutching my camera so tight it looked as if I was about to be flung off into space if I had let go of it.
I remember this screaming crazy lady inside my head, “no no no, dead baby, dead baby!” but my feet kept walking. I entered into the room and the crazy lady was silenced. I looked into Thomas’s beautiful still face and across to my friend’s and I was again reminded and humbled. I was her witness… I set my camera and began my work. I floated around the room unnoticed and free.
I am home now. Forever changed, forever better. I went upstairs and found a old envelope of mine labeled by a forgotten nurse, “open when needed”. Inside a picture of a baby, my baby. I cried tears of grief and relief and I forgave myself for my fears so long ago.
Thomas Cooper died today. He was a harbinger of new friendships and personal growth. He exposed our failings, laid to rest our ghosts, made us weep and made us eager to seek joy. He never took a breath. This tiny person will always remain one of the most important people to have come into my life.