In the fall of 2012, I thought I might finally be ready to attempt a "family" photo. We would hire a professional photographer to take some posed but mostly documentary style shots. We would choose a beautifully landscaped location, maybe a forest preserve decked out in autumn's color palate. Our clothes would be carefully staged to appear casually thrown together, not matching, but not clashing. One of the scenes might be the three of us holding hands, C.T. between B and me, walking down a winding gravel path, a canopy of colorful leaves above us. For another, C.T. being pushed on the swings at the park, his head thrown back in laughter. A couple of the photos would be selected for our Christmas card. We'd choose our favorite family photo and have it framed for the fireplace mantel. I identified a photographer that my sister had used, and after she gave him a primer on our family, he seemed open and willing to think about how we might include B.W. - or his memory - in at least a few of the photos.
The photo shoot never happened that year. Guilt and regret that we were doing it without B.W., fear that it would just feel too incomplete, paralyzed my attempt to follow through. We have plenty of photos of the three of us, often with some B.W. memorial element somehow included, purposely or inadvertantly. But there was always this nagging reluctance to go through the process of declaring a "family" photo shoot, with a professional photographer,... I don't know, I just couldn't do it.
You see, that has always been the issue. B.W. was our first child, the one who made us a family in the traditional offspring-required definition. And, he has always been dead. We never even got a family photo with his dead body. A professional family photo after B.W.'s death, with C.T. present in our lives, just never felt quite right. I've never known how to adequately incorporate our dead son when he is just so absent. So many of the ideas I've seen or heard from other bereaved parents were just not me, not us. So, we've never had one taken. Not one professional photograph of our "family".
In the fall of 2013, I remember revisiting, ever so briefly, the idea of a real family photo. Pregnant with Zachary, and having already waited so many years for the concept of a family photo to sit somewhat tolerably, even then I rationalized we would put it off one more year. I wanted to wait until Zachary was here safely and could be part of the photograph. Four out of five family members in the photo seemed slightly more palatable than three out of four. In my bereaved-mother mind, I told myself that my family would, in all likelihood, be more complete in 2014. And, it was. For two weeks, when Zachary was here, it was.
At that time, children were not allowed in the NICU. And so it seemed obvious that a family photo (including C.T.) would have to wait until Zachary came home. And honestly, because Zachary was almost fully expected to come home whole and healthy, it never crossed my mind to hire a professional photographer to come and take photos at all, even just of Zachary in his infancy. We were also told not to bother his preemie eyes too much with photos and flashes - that we'd have a lifetime to pester him to giggle and smile for the camera, that I should focus on fattening him up so that he could go home.
In the midst of the calm, when Zachary was healthy, we don't have a single (of course, incomplete) family photo of me, B, C.T. and Zachary, together. Then, full expectation was violently downgraded to holding on to hope, and then crushingly surrendered to removing Zachary's life support. The couple of photos we have of the four of us are from the days when Zachary was very ill, and we were unable to hold him, and then from the day he died in our arms. I was certain to bring B.W.'s framed hand and foot prints to the hospital on the day Zachary died so that his memory would be part of the few unsatisfying images we do have with our "family".
I wish I would have asked the professional photographer for a couple of staged photos of us that day, before he actually died. Because the photographer's approach was documentary style, so as not to interfere in our last hours with Zachary, the only decent staged photo we have with the four of us, plus B.W.'s prints in the background, are from when Zachary was already dead. Our faces absolutely broken and spent, a dead Zachary in my arms, a memorial to another dead son in the background. It just doesn't get more fucked up than that.
I hate it. I can't put words to how much I hate it. It burns me to my core to be cheated of the lives of my two children, and to have ONLY brokenness highlighted in our few "family" photos. Something that is so natural and normal, that is usually pride and joy inducing, for families to have and share with others, is truly a dagger in my broken heart.