A Bittersweet Photograph

A Bittersweet Photograph

From Chicken Soup for the Military Wife's Soul

A Bittersweet Photograph

I sat in the dark family room of the neonatal ICU in Camp Lester, holding hands with my husband, Erik, and shaking. I couldn’t do this, not now, not ever. I was about to hold my baby for the first time, and for the last. The room seemed to grow darker, and I felt like I was living in a horrible dream.

My twin sons Keegan and Tristan were born three months prematurely at a naval hospital on Okinawa. They both had been fighting an incredible battle, while the team of military doctors and nurses did all they could. But Tristan’s lungs were too premature, and he was dying.

On the tenth day, Erik and I watched and waited, knowing in our hearts that the whisper of God’s calling was more powerful than any drug or procedure on the planet. Although my heart understood, my mind couldn’t wrap around the fact that I would no longer be able to hold, smell, kiss, sing to or see my son. Then a woman I had only seen in passing, Capt. Karen Larry, stepped into the room.

Capt. Larry looked us each in the eye and placed her healing hands over both of ours. “I don’t know if the two of you have thought about this,” she said gently, “but with your permission, I would like to take some photographs of Tristan for you.”

I had heard of parents taking photos with stillborn children, but I wasn’t sure. Capt. Larry could see the doubt in my face. “I also lost a baby,” she told us. “Some parents have found it a comfort to have a photograph. It can be for just the two of you.” A tiny candle took flame in a pitch-black room. Through my tears, I agreed, and then Erik did, too.

When the nurse brought Tristan in, my husband and I began to sob. It was the first time we had seen him without wires or tubes connected to him. There were no whirring machines drowning out his tiny breathing. He was all wrapped up in a soft blanket and a little soft beanie hat, and he finally looked like a baby. Like our baby. While my husband and I held Tristan for the first and last time, Capt. Larry quietly began taking photographs. I was so overwhelmed by emotions that, had she not asked our permission, I probably would not have noticed her. As soon as we took comfort in the moment, Tristan took a final labored breath, and then he was gone.

The next few days were an emotionally exhausting haze. My other son Keegan was doing much better, but my heart was still shattered by Tristan’s death. Once again, Capt. Larry brought light into my day. She gave me a package, and, when Erik came home, we opened it together.

Capt. Larry had created a treasure for us. Not only were there photos of us holding our precious son, but she also had taken the extra time to photograph him after he had passed. He looked so peaceful, bundled up and lying next to the teddy bear that my mother had gotten for him the day the twins were born. There was so much in this black-and-white photograph that was familiar. Tristan’s nose, his face and his little hands were just like mine. His little body had been so consumed by all the wires that I had not truly seen the resemblance until just that moment. With her camera, Capt. Larry had captured a true feeling of peace, something any mother would wish for her firstborn son. I hugged the photos and Erik, while we both cried.

More than a month later, I was allowed to spend my first night alone in the postpartum ward with Keegan. Capt. Larry, who had become a dear friend during our stay in the NICU, came to visit and take Keegan’s vitals, and I told her how much she meant to our family and how precious was the gift she had given to us. Tears had become a regular part of our conversations, for they flowed sometimes without reason when we were together. We found a common ground in our quest for motherhood, and in the losses and triumphs of the lives we had created.

We returned to the States, and my dear friend Capt. Larry remains a part of our lives. We have shared many e-mails and photographs, but that one bittersweet image is still the centerpiece of our bound lives. This dear, simple act of kindness touches me every day. The black-and-white photo that Capt. Larry took is in Keegan’s room, and I take comfort in knowing that Tristan watches over his little brother.

We have many pictures of family and friends hanging on our walls, but one stands out. It is a black-and-white photograph of Capt. Larry, with tears in her eyes and love in her heart. She is holding Keegan.

Amy Naegeli

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