MALTBY, Wash. – Laughter filled Vicki Zoller’s photo studio on a rainy April morning as she took pictures of Joy and Bryan Hill’s family, using a feather to tickle their two kids, 5-year-old Alamea and 2-year-old Kai.
But a few minutes later, the mood changed when Bryan was asked to stand behind Joy, wrapping his arms around her pregnant tummy.
“It brings back memories of…”
Bryan could not finish the sentence. Tears filled his eyes, then Joy’s eyes. She turned around and embraced her husband.
“It’s OK,” Bryan whispered in Joy’s ear.
The entire photo shoot brought back memories of their last maternity shoot, which took place a year earlier. But the circumstances were entirely different.
In 2009, Joy was well into her pregnancy when the family learned about a series of problems with Gabriel, their unborn child: a chromosome issue and a hernia that allowed the baby’s intestines to enter his upper chest cavity.
Doctors told the Hills that the baby might only live a few hours after he was born.
The hospital told the Hills about an organization called “Now I Lay Me Down To Sleep,” a network of photographers around the country who voluntarily take pictures of babies that do not survive.
Vicki Zoller is the local coordinator. She has done free photo sessions for about 60 families in the past few years.
“They can look at [photos] and know and remember that they did hold their baby, that they did love their baby,” Zoller said.
Not too long ago, when families learned they might lose a child, they were encouraged not to bond with the baby. But those attitudes have changed and “Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” is helping families remember and honor those children.
Rachele Valadez, another photographer who volunteers her time, lost her first child 11 years ago.
“It was almost like she didn’t exist,” Valadez said. “I didn’t want that for other families. It’s just too hard because she was real and will always be real for me.”
Zoller and the Hills met for the first time at Gabriel’s maternity shoot, which was a painful, emotional experience.
She was there again when Gabriel was born last year. The little boy never cried or opened his eyes. He passed away within an hour.
“It was short,” Joy said. “We were saying our goodbyes at that point. It’s a really tough moment.”
The one thing that helped was having Zoller in the room. She took pictures of Gabriel’s first bath, his tiny feet and his mother cradling his tiny head in her hands.
“They just cuddled with him on the bed and snuggled with him and kissed him and loved him,” Zoller said. “And then I left, and they had to go home without him. It’s heartbreaking.”
Even though Gabriel lived only a matter of minutes, the precious photos will last a lifetime.
“We’re still affected by it,” Bryan said. “But having these pictures there just helps him be a part of our family still.”
Now, a year later, the Hills are in front of Zoller’s camera again, expecting another baby.
“This is a great way to honor their courage,” Zoller said.
While ever test indicates that this child is perfectly healthy, the maternity shoot is an emotional experience for the Hills. Many of the poses remind them of their maternity shoot for Gabriel.
But on a clear May night at Evergreen Medical Center in Kirkland, there was no silence when Miliani Kalea Hill entered the world. She cried within seconds and opened her eyes immediately.
“I just can’t take my eyes off her,” Joy said with a huge smile on her face.
Once again, Zoller was there to capture it all, including photos of Miliani’s tiny feet and her mother cradling her tiny head in her hands.
While the poses remind them of Gabriel, they know this is different. A day later the family left the hospital one member bigger.
“It’s so nice to actually bring a baby home,” Joy said while giving Zoller a hug.
“It sure is,” Zoller replied.
“Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep” currently has five active photographers in the Seattle area. They average about 150 to 200 sessions a year. One photographer alone did about 30 sessions last year, Zoller said.
But the demand is great and they are always looking for more volunteers. For more information, please visit the foundation's website:www.nowilaymedowntosleep.org