Her name was Sarah. She entered this world 43 years ago this month amid a holiday season that, if you strip away all the needless commotion, centers on the birth of a child.
Unlike the perfect baby in the manger, though, Sarah struggled from her first breath.
Her heart did not function properly. Her doctors, hoping for a miracle, transferred her to Children’s Hospital in Boston with its higher level of care.
But the miracle never came. Six days later, just before Christmas of 1973, Sarah died.
“So we went through the joys and complexity of a birth, the confusion – ‘Is our baby thriving or dying?’ – and on to the sadness of a death,” recalled Arthur Fink, Sarah’s father, in the quiet of his Portland photo studio last week.
Fink, a longtime commercial photographer from Peaks Island, and Sarah’s mother, Beatrice Hawley, later divorced. Beatrice died several years later and Fink remarried and became a stepfather.
But he’ll always know that searing emotional whiplash reserved for the most unfortunate among us, the joy of childbirth followed immediately by the anguish of a memorial service.
Fink calls them “short-lived children,” tiny souls either stillborn or overwhelmed by health complications at the very dawn of life. Now age 69, camera in hand, he sees them more often than most of us could bear.
“The act of taking a photograph is kind of a validation. I still think that that process of being a witness is almost more important than the pictures I take,” said Fink, seated at his computer. As he spoke, the screen filled with images of a frail newborn baby, moments from death, surrounded by her solemn family.
Some might recoil at the mere notion of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep. It’s a national network of professional photographers, all volunteers, who provide families with the most important of keepsakes – baby pictures – as they cope with the tragedy of a lost infant.
But hard as it might be to imagine calling in a photographer to document one of life’s cruelest blows, the photos are for many the most precious of gifts.
They prove, once and forever, that a child was here. That life, however fleeting, is something to be celebrated – not banished to that dark closet of agonies best forgotten.
Nicole understands that well.
She’s a wife and mother of three – including a son, Cullen, and twin daughters. Emma will be 6 in March. Her sister, Elli, lived for only 25 days.
Nicole asked that I not use her family’s last name, but welcomed the opportunity to share her story and pictures – along with her gratitude for the man who took them.
“There are not enough thank-yous I could ever give Arthur for the gift that he gave us,” Nicole said by telephone Friday from her home in Lisbon Falls.
For a while back in 2011, it appeared that both Emma and Elli, born prematurely after a difficult pregnancy, might not make it out of the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, or NICU, at Maine Medical Center in Portland.
But Emma rallied, while Elli didn’t. Finally, after almost a monthlong vigil, Nicole and her husband, James, knew what they had to do.
“We had been told several times that she probably wouldn’t make it, so we were kind of just bracing ourselves for that moment,” Nicole recalled. “We knew it was coming, but we were just hoping it wouldn’t.”
Elli, even on life support, was failing. After a particularly rough night, doctors told Nicole and James there was no hope she could survive.
“We made the decision that morning,” Nicole said. “We really didn’t have to think about it. We just kind of looked at each other and it was like, ‘Yeah, it’s time.’ ”
They summoned their extended family and a clergy friend, all of whom converged on the hospital to hold Elli – for the first and last time – and to support her grieving parents.
And they called in Fink to document the final hours. No bright lights, no “you stand here” and “you stand there,” only a gentle, unobtrusive man and his digital single-lens reflex camera, quietly giving pause to the inexorable passage of time.
Eventually, the relatives departed, leaving only Nicole, James, their three children and Fink.
They held Elli’s too-small fingers in their own. Click.
They removed Elli from life support and placed her in the Isolette alongside Emma. Click.
The two infant sisters held hands. Click.
Then, after gamely hanging on for another hour or two, Elli breathed her last.
“Arthur caught some very beautiful moments. That was the first time that any of us were able to hold her,” Nicole said. “We all got to share that moment together. And he captured all of that.”
Fink first heard of Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep six or seven years ago. With his own little Sarah squarely in mind, he jumped at the chance to help others navigate the storm he himself weathered all those decades ago.
He’s now the organization’s regional coordinator, corralling a half-dozen or so professional photographers willing to drop what they’re doing – often on a moment’s notice – and head for the Maine Medical Center’s NICU.
There, they might find a baby like Elli in the final moments of life. Other times, the child has already died.
“This may sound weird,” said Fink, who makes the trip himself on average once or twice a month.
“I’m seeing people at some of the hardest times in their lives – and they’re beautiful. They’re slowed down. They’re embracing each other and their child. Sometimes it’s working-class men, who I don’t think are super touchy-feely, and here they are being kind and compassionate and affectionate. It’s a break from their regular lives. They’re totally caught up in this part of their own lives … which is beautiful.”
He never tells his subjects about Sarah. He’s there to capture their moment, not recount his own. But often, as he rubs on the hand sanitizer before entering the room, he closes his eyes and sees her.
His work is impeccable. Clicking a thumbnail on his screen, he zoomed in on a father’s hand, rough and large, tenderly cradling a child not much bigger than his palm.
“That guy, I think, worked at a service station,” Fink noted. “Look, he’s still got grease on his hands.”
Another photo showed a boy and a girl, about 7 and 4, tissues in hand, reaching out tentatively to touch their stillborn sibling.
“I’m a firm believer that you don’t subject kids to more than they can handle, but this is so much a part of their lives,” he said. “Years later, they will know they had a sister or brother.”
Fink’s pictures of Elli can be found all over Nicole’s and James’ home. Cullen and Emma each have one in their bedrooms.
“Six years later, it brings me joy,” Nicole said. “Because the children now have something to look at.”
Which, in the end, is the point behind Fink’s and the other photographers’ services.
(The hours spent shooting, the editing, the computer disks and as many prints as a family desires all come free of charge.)
“The better the end of life can be, the more healing there can be for the families,” said Linda Brady, the nurse manager at Maine Medical Center’s NICU. “It does take a special kind of person to be able to do this. Arthur does it purely out of compassion. He just does it because it’s the right thing to do.”
Had fate taken a different turn, Sarah would be hard at work like the rest of us this weekend, preparing for her 44th Christmas. Just over a week ago, Fink commemorated her birthday on Facebook.
He recalled how, just after Sarah died, a well-meaning friend spoke of “trying again.” How terribly wrong that sounded, as if his baby girl, however fleeting her time on this earth, was somehow a failure that needed fixing.
“Don’t ignore these short-lived children and their families,” Fink wrote.
“Whether a child died at one week or one month or one year, or whenever, parents and friends need love and support, and an affirmation that their child was exactly that – their child.”
He continued: “I thank Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, the organization that supports this volunteer photographic work. They call it ‘bereavement photography.’ I just call it love being shared.”
Hundreds of people responded on Facebook to thank Fink. Many lamented the loss of their own children and grandchildren.
A few recalled how, in their moments of anguish, he and his camera helped lighten their crushing load.
Wrote one woman, “Sarah would be very proud.”