My dad bought me my first camera when I was in high school, a Cannon 35mm, but I kept asking for a “real” camera, a digital camera. I wanted instant gratification and film took, like, FOREVER. It wasn’t until right before Ben left for Afghanistan, I wandered into Best Buy and purchased the camera that has captured the last seven years of our lives. I didn’t know it then, but anytime I have spent money on film or a new lens or professional images of our family, it has been the BEST investment.
Ben left for Afghanistan, I tried to take a photo of Jules everyday. I didn’t want Ben to miss out on a moment, he could watch her grow (even in still life) from his computer screen in the desert. Looking back now, at how tiny she was and all the little bitty things we did everyday, those photo albums are a visual journal of her second year of life. I see the still picture, us frozen in a kiss on the beach. She’s sitting in her teal bikini with her curly hair everywhere, I had just cut off all of my hair and i’m leaning in and instinctively holding hair that isn’t there out of my face. The moment my eyes hit that shot, the image begins to move. The sand shifts under my shins and we get up, Jules runs to the water. Every single time I look back, I go back: the sounds and smells, I can feel my skin soaking up the sun and the salt air moving what was left of my hair around.
My camera is always close to my fingertips because the best moments to capture seem to happen on a random Tuesday night. I snap away constantly, it doesn’t matter what we are wearing or what the kids are doing, I just want the image burnt into something I can hold. Piles of photo albums, hundreds of pictures slid into the sticky plastic sleeves. With the digital age in full swing, everything is backed up onto tiny little sticks and stuffed into fireproof vaults. Anytime I wish, I slip the memory card into my Mac, and the pictures slide past my eyes one at a time. Often it’s milliseconds between shots, so each photo is microscopically different from another. When I scroll quickly enough, it’s as though i’m playing a movie.
Even the hard moments we hold onto, hidden in the backs of closets. The first pictures that were difficult to look at were taken in Afghanistan, Ben looks at that man in those mountains and I know he relives some of the worst days of his life. Again, just a year later we had found ourselves documenting the beginning of a journey that to this day brings me to my knees. We knew other parents in the NICU who never had visitors, never took photos of their children. They didn’t want to remember how hard their lives were during those dark days. Ben and I talked about what we wanted and I am so glad we chose to take as many pictures as we could. I have images from almost everyday of their lives: the tiny moments in an incubator, Jules growing up in two vastly different homes, graduating from the NICU, holidays and lazy pajama days, all of the firsts (which for a little one can mean all the days until they start school). From the moment we knew Beckett’s life wasn’t a right but a privilege, every single day became an occasion we needed to rise too. Every minute of their lives needed to be important enough to capture on film, because what if in the next breath it’s over? That’s where the sweetness lives, the intentional slowness of a life well-lived. We didn’t document every adventure because we had to share it with the world, I captured our life on my camera because our days together were worth re-living each and every time I open an album or scroll through a photo cd. Ben and I were given the gift of being constantly reminded that Beckett and Clementine’s lives were short, so we had to fit a lifetime into the season we were given. I knew someday I would kiss them one last time and they would leave, just as they were meant too. I wanted to make sure that once we were ready, Ben and I could start to swim through all of the footage of our days as a family of six and soak in the memories.
We were given Beth Benoit’s name while we were in the NICU with Beckett, a friend of the family used her for their pictures and we knew she was good. It’s comical to look back on that now because she is WONDERFUL, truly a gift for the families she works with. We must have rescheduled with her for weeks, we weren’t sure when we would be discharged and I was just a touch neurotic about organizing our lives once we brought Beckett home. Beth was patient and kind, but most of all she understood us. When she came to our tiny apartment in New London, she emptied one side of the living room to use the crisp white wall we were too poor to decorate. Everything was “just fine, no need to worry, the shots will be fantastic” and she was right. The photos came back to us and I felt my breath catch in the back of my throat, the tears were hot as they ran down my face. My children looked just perfect, just as Ben and I saw them, there were no wires or tubes or machines or strangers shuffling in the background. The black and white, perfectly still image of Jules leaning in to kiss a sleeping Beckett is still my absolute favorite.
But, a photographer is expensive and we were wrapped up in a whirlwind of everyday life so we stuck with me sitting behind the lens taking every picture I could. Clementine came and then Wilbur, when Wilbur was born our family felt just right as though we were always supposed to be this family of six. It was then that I began taking a photo each Friday, I would gather all four of the kids usually in the late afternoon and pile them together. Didn’t matter what they were wearing or where we were, #fearlessfourfriday and #gaggleofgauvins were born. As you can see, I can shoot a lot of the mundane awkwardness of family life…
Then in late August of 2014, we were face-to-face with the reality of Beckett and Clementine’s disease, we were going home on palliative/hospice care. Ben and I only had three years of experience to go on, so we pieced together a rough timeline, we had anywhere from a week to a few months left with our two middle children. One of the first thoughts to run through my head was we need pictures, so I reached out to Beth, once again asking her to be on call (we weren’t sure of a discharge date but we would need photos within 72 hours of being home). Phone calls, emails and texts were exchanged, a place was chosen and a generous donor purchased our outfits. A family member with a gift for videography agreed to film the entire outing. The pictures we have from that day are some of the last we have as a family of six.
A few days later, Clementine unexpectedly passed away in the morning. Our philosophy for this next leg of our journey was we would do everything in those last days but only keep what we wanted because we knew we only had one shot at death, once it came we couldn’t have any do-overs. Using this guide post, Ben and I had decided to take photos of the kids after they died. We arranged for our pastor to take the pictures but he was out of town the morning Clementine died. Frantic, I called another pastor friend who could arrive but not for a few more hours. Again, we reached out to Beth. This was not her wheelhouse, she captured the joy of newborns and sweet families, not the gray of a life ending. Beth agreed and she came quietly, barely leaving an imprint in our bedroom, just as quickly as she came she was gone. Again she gave to us a precious memory, for the moments as we leave this world are just as sacred as the moments when we take our first breath.
Now, with a third of our family absent, we still take pictures. We hold Beckett and Clementine’s boxes of cremains in fields of sunflowers and castles of ice. We snap pictures as we sprinkle their dust on our vacations. Our favorite family photo last year is a still image of our feet in a little stream with B and C’s ashes glittering on the rocks beneath the water. Every time I look through my lens, my subconscious pulls up ripping at me, reminding me that two people are missing from these moments. We can’t see them, but we try to hold the space they would have filled. This year, we framed the sun catchers that hold fragments of Beckett and Clementine. Ben dutifully listened to my crazy as I explained the idea, he weighed in on each location and then carried our four small children and a ladder over two stone walls, and up a hill in a field. Beth came traipsing up behind us, to see Ben on a ladder hanging Beckett and Clementine from a tree limb. The light caught in the glass just as the sun began to set. We sat on one of the stone walls, barefoot and dirty, the sun was warm when just a hint of breeze picked up; right then I knew Beckett and Clementine were glad to be with us.