Gemma works for a volunteer organisation of professional photographers from all over Australia called Heartfelt, who give the gift of photographic memories to families that have experienced stillbirths, premature and ill infants and children in the Neonatal Intensive Care Units of their local hospitals, as well as children with serious and terminal illnesses. Here’s her story.
I think it was the hair that got me. Days later it is still the hair that I’m thinking about. Little waves of it, slicked to her scalp by the way she had entered the world. Dried and curly with the remnants of birth. And her tiny lips, puckered ready for kissing. But this babe hadn’t entered peacefully, and the way her head lay, her tiny feet, her hands and her chest pinpricked with the texture of the towel that covered her, was testament to the lack of breath in her lungs.
Her mouth, that sweet kissable mouth, was dark and seemed to frown somehow. It was like she was sad she knew she’d almost made it from that deep dark place in her Mums belly to that safe milky spot on her chest. Still she lay there, a lovely chubby girl, and I took what I could of her for a memento. I took her face, her hands crossed over her little heart, her feet, everything I could get into my camera for safe keeping, and then I walked out into the relentless summer sunshine, to a world that moved on, paying no heed to the loss of her small breaths, and a parking ticket.
It was then, photographing the second dead child in less than an hour, that the midwife had turned to me and said “This part is the hardest part. I hate it”. And I knew she meant what I was feeling, that those little lifeless bodies, were more than their size. So many hopes and dreams, even expectations, were tucked up into their teeny hearts, under their miniature fingernails, in the wave of those birth formed curls, that they should have been 1000 feet tall not so terribly, terribly, eternally small.
In that same breath she’d asked me why I did it? Why?
I’d gotten up that morning, to a house full of family sleeping off the excesses of Christmas, and nabbed my niece off a sister thankful for the chance of some extra sleep. I’d had too many champagnes the day before to try for my own lie in, and greedily wanted P’s nine-month-old morning smiles to myself before the family rose and started the slightly competitive game of baby pass-the-parcel (each vying to be the apple of her delightful eyes).
We’d cuddled on the couch, and I’d nestled my nose into the soft folds of her darling little neck, absorbing her. I was born, and then much later so was she, into a family that loves babies. We’re not many, us lot, but we are treasured. Dad was stoked to be a father and welcomed us with home baked bread, and a spot on his chest that I still, thirty something years later, tuck myself into. Mum adored us completely, lavishing us with love, and delighting in our every moment. Then later, when we became a blended family, and I had two more sisters, and another Mum, we were chucked into this big melting pot of love-each-other (with a dash of exasperated just-get-along-you-lot) and told we could be anything we wanted.
We weren’t planned kids, nor the children of people who had tried for long, tiresome and tear filled years to conceive. We were just a raggedy bunch of ratbags, four stroppy girls, who grew up loved. And now the next generation has come along, perfect and kissable and delicious (yes, even at 5am). We’re also a family that throws the kids around, each of us rolling up our sleeves and mucking in with the tantrums, the nappies, the baths, the reading of books, the feeding and the entertaining. Each of us measuring ourselves in children, all adding slightly differently. For me; two nephews and a niece, who have changed my life in the most magnificent and unexpected ways.