This blog post is different from a typical photo shoot post, and it is a very special story about an organization that I volunteer with and a family that I met and photographed through the organization. Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep (www.nilmdts.org) is a non-profit organization whose mission is to introduce remembrance photography to parents suffering the loss of a baby with the free gift of professional portraiture. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS) administers a network of volunteer professional photographers in the United States and 40 international countries. They train, educate and mobilize professional photographers to provide heirloom portraits to families facing the untimely death of an infant. They "believe these images serve as an important step in the family's healing process by honoring the child's legacy." At a family's request, a NILMDTS Affiliated Photographer will come to the hospital or hospice location and conduct a sensitive and private portrait session. The portraits are then professionally retouched and presented to the families on an archival DVD or CD that can be used to print portraits of their cherished baby.
Here in the Knoxville/Maryville area, we have a team of 9 photographers that serve as NILMDTS photographers. Calls are made by the hospital or the family to one of the coordinators (myself or Jamie Weiss) and then we "dispatch" the request out to our team to see who is available to serve a family on that day. Services are provided for families who have experienced an unexpected loss at birth or for infants who are gravely ill and are on support, as well as for families who know in advance that their baby has a condition that will be incompatible with life.
In the 5 years that I have volunteered with NILMDTS, I have had the honor of meeting many families and photographing their baby so that they have portraits of him or her. These sessions, as you can imagine, are very private and personal and images are always kept completely private, shared only with the parents. It is with the parents’ permission and their desire to share their story and their appreciation for NILMDTS that I am sharing this story of Eli. I received a very sweet email from Eli's mom, Elizabeth, recently as the one-year mark of Eli’s birth passed in April and April marks the 8-year anniversary of the NILMDTS organization, so I wanted to close the month with Eli's story and some images from his session.
Eli's mom contacted me months before his birth to inquire about NILMDTS so that their family would have some portraits of their short time with him. He is their fourth child and they knew that he had a form of skeletal dysplasia; skeletal dysplasia is the medical term for dwarfish and Eli had a type of it that was incompatible with life. His time here with them would be short, and it was not known if he would be born and have minutes or hours with them, or if he would slip away even before his parents could meet him. But during his time here with his family, we planned to photograph him so Mom and Dad would have pictures of all their children (he is the fourth child; he has a sister and two brothers) and remember the short time they would spend with him. I was humbled to meet Eli's parents and to provide this for them. We put his scheduled arrival (c-section) date on the calendar and stayed in touch as the date approached. Then, just a few days before his scheduled date, Elizabeth texted me one evening to tell me that she was in labor. The c-section was to take place now that night since he was coming a bit earlier than his scheduled birth date. On April 7th, at 12:52 a.m. Eli Matthew was born and let out a little cry to announce his arrival. It was such a sweet little sound! He was swaddled up and got to spend a quick minute with mom and dad before the doctors took him to examine him and to complete mom's c-section. Within a short while, everyone was brought back to their room and reintroduced and it was here that we spent time photographing their moments with him. Big brothers and big sister came in to meet him; his big sister was so excited for Eli to have his little pacifier . . . she just kept trying to take care of him and give it to him (I found this especially sweet and touching to watch.) I spent a couple hours with this dear family, and then my time with then was over. The next morning, I received a sweet text from Eli's mom, thanking me for coming late in the night and for providing them with images of their time with him, and to let me know that Eli was with them for 11 hours before he went to be with God. I again felt humbled to have met this family, to have known Eli, and to see and to be able to capture with my camera all the love and tenderness they had for him in his 11 hours here with them.
When I am asked why I volunteer with NILMDTS, or someone comments that "it must be so hard to do that" (and it is, but not half as difficult as it is for the families) . . . it is the families and the parents that I meet and can give to them portraits of their precious time with their baby that inspires me to photograph with NILMDTS and to serve these families. Words like those from Eli’s mom (see below), expressing how much it means to them to have the portraits, are my reason for volunteering.
I received an email from his mom a week later and this is what it said: "As I have reflected back on this past week, and today a lot as it’s been a week since Eli left us, I can't thank you enough for being there and offering your services to our family. I have looked and memorized every detail of those 8 pictures you sent of Eli a million times. I couldn't have made it this week without them. And if that's all I ever had of him it’s enough to last a lifetime. You will forever be a precious person who means so much in our family's life for all you have done for us. Thank you! Love, Elizabeth"
I had sent a handful of images via email for his mom and dad to have right away, to have for his service and to be able to have to have to look at as they missed and mourned him, while I worked on editing all of the images that would be given to them on a disc in a few weeks. After receiving their disc, her sweet emails in the following weeks said, "Without them [the pictures], I know how quickly the details of Eli's short time with us would fade. But thanks to you and your sacrifice they will never fade away; I will cherish them every day of the rest of my life. Also, to our children these mean so much. They were so excited to "see" him again. They each want a big one of them with him for beside their beds. :) My heart has been patched by your pictures that will hold me over till I can hold my precious baby again. I can never thank you enough for the tremendous blessing you have been to all of us. Thank you and may God continue to bless you as you journey through life."
A year later (just this month), she emailed me to again express how precious the photos are to her. “Eli's pictures are a constant balm to our broken hearts and are a joy to have so many previous memories. Your time, concern and care for our family was a tremendous blessing,” she said.
Here are a few images from Eli's session during his time with his family. I know that you will feel and see the way their hearts swell with love for this little guy. And his siblings think he is so cute and were happy to meet their little brother. Enjoy these . . . and meet little Eli.
*Please note: This session is shared with explicit permission from the family. All NILMDTS photo sessions are always kept private; images are never shown to or shared on the internet or in any other way without explicit permission to do so.*