Dr Joanne Cacciatore shared a link on her blog to an extraordinary series of photographic studies. Life before death is a series of portraits taken by German photographer, Walter Schels and his partner, Beate Lakotta, of people before and after they had died. It's incredible. I was poignantly struck by the peaceful repose of their death faces, as if they were truly released from their body's hold yet the impression of that release remains on the body form. It brings up so many questions and wonder about what happens, where do we go. And many memories for me.
Bear with me. With thanks.
Our daughter Imogen was born with an unknown genetic anomaly causing her to be unable to grow. It is suspected to be a form of Primordial Dwarfism. She had many characteristics of primordial dwarfs; lively, wakeful, alert, a go getter. The staff at the NICU loved her, calling her 'Her Ladyship'. But the ventilator that initially eased the effort of breathing, became her prison. Her lungs could not grow fast enough to be released from it. Basically, the ventilator trashed her lungs. We had to make the decision to help her die, something I'd never wish on any parent. Ever.
When she died, after 3 months in the NICU, it was so hard to reconcile how a little person, who greeted us every morning with a lively face and eyes so full of sparkles, could be gone by late afternoon. Where did she go? Where did she go.
Seeing those photos made me want to share a crumb of my own journey, share a corner of the tapestry which while no longer taking center stage, still weaves it's threads. Parenthood is forever.
I wrote this in my journal, about 2 weeks after Imogen died, an attempt to capture something of that moment when she died. It's my own addition to what could be called my own Life before death series.
31 March, 2001: I don't understand, nor will I ever understand, how a person can go from being lively to lifeless in a few short hours. We all held you in the beautiful brightness of the birthing centre's open courtyard off our room. We were offered these beautiful rooms for your last hours. How often has it happened that a family sends a child to heaven from a Birthing Centre?
No one wanted you to go. I wanted to hold you forever. It would have been a privilege. I'd like to think it's my right as a parent. But it's not. We are only vessels, not containers. But we still wanted more, oh God yes more. Is any parent satisfied with less? We are so grateful for our time together. But we wanted more. Gratitude and yearning. A dichotomy. Side by side.
So fresh, so clean. Beautiful. Surrounded in a pink glow. Warmth. I loved your feet. Your hands. Your little legs. Gently folded arms. Fair eyelashes. Fingernails. Soft head. Big round tummy. Your tummy button. Your precious ears. closed eyes. I loved you hard.
I cradled you, your pink blanket surrounding your unclothed body. I held your hand. Perfect fingers encircling mine, just as they did every day of your life. You held me. Like you alway would do. And when Dr. John removed your tape, your tube just simply pulled away and it was quiet, oh so quiet because you no longer required the equipment.
I held you. Clutched you. Wanted and cried out, begged you. You certainly were spunky enough to live. But you gently slipped away instead. Your grip softening, your tongue stilled. I watched wondering, where did she go?? Why did she go? Please let me go too! Don't let go of my hand.
All quiet now. Except for the deafening smashing of breaking hearts within every witness. The blood pounds new fissures with every beat.
We tried to make your last day beautiful for you. We tried our best. Was it right? To let you go? Was it right? I would have rather hacked off all my limbs, poked out both eyes, sacrificed organs, had all my blood drained, given you my lungs. Your last day was beautiful, but it isn't what I wanted. I wanted you. Here now. Holding my hand, as you always would do.
I'm not crying, my breasts are. Big milk tears. They cry the tears that my eyes cannot.