Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Helping Parents Cope with Grief

It's rare that I post an entire news article on my blog, but I read this one from the Washington Post this morning and it brought me to tears -- not just as a parent but as a human being. A. and I are so blessed that we have never been through what this article describes, but there are so many others who haven't been so fortunate. As I read the story I became very conflicted about how I truly felt about this; I was certainly emotional (I don't know how anyone could read this and not be), but it was also difficult for me to see this sort of thing being done. Until someone has actually been through this, though (God forbid), there's no way of knowing how anyone would deal with the circumstances.

Regardless, my prayers go out to the parents who have been through this and to the photographers who give so much of themselves (their time and little parts of their spirit) to provide this gift for grieving families. The entire story (along with the link) and the photograph are from the Post story.

Photographers Help Grieving Parents Take the First Step in Healing
By Emily Langer
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 30, 2008; HE01

A white rose hanging outside the doorway tells nurses that the family in this one room of the maternity ward at Inova Alexandria Hospital is different. It puts them on notice not to tiptoe around the curtain smiling, ready to coo at a sleeping baby and congratulate the new parents. That's because this couple is not experiencing the happiest day of their lives, but possibly the saddest: Their daughter, several months premature, was stillborn, one of the 25,000 stillborn each year in the United States.

Julia MacInnis, a 40-year-old Alexandria-based photographer, has walked into 18 such hospital rooms during the past year. She is one of 5,500 volunteers for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, a nonprofit organization that offers to send, at no charge, photographers to capture images of babies who have died or who are unlikely to live more than a few hours or days.

Many mothers and fathers who have lost their children go home from the hospital with their baby's blankets, a lock of hair or maybe a Polaroid photo snapped by a nurse. Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep steps in when parents believe that something more might help them heal.

The death of a child might seem too wrenching a moment to share with a photographer whom the parents have never met and are unlikely to see again. But many parents who turn to Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep later cherish the photos taken of their babies. Sherry Petri, a labor and delivery nurse at Potomac Hospital in Woodbridge, who lost her baby in 2005, offers to call Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep on behalf of patients whose babies have died. Some decline, but of those who choose to have the photographs taken, Petri says, she has "never known of anybody who had misgivings."

Maureen Porto, 34, a photographer from Annapolis who has done nine photo sessions, said that some families wait days or even weeks to look at their photos. She remembers one mother who wrote her months after her baby died: "I was grieving that day," she said. "Did I thank you enough?"

* * *

Late one Sunday night several weeks ago, in the dimly lit room at Inova Alexandria, MacInnis offered her condolences to the parents of the stillborn baby girl. The mother was resting in bed, while her husband, dressed in jeans and a green T-shirt, sat on a couch near the couple's birth assistant. Their daughter, her head no bigger than a fist and her mouth slightly open, lay swaddled in a blanket next to her mother.

After the father signed a consent form and the mother tied back her long hair, MacInnis began her work. First she photographed the mother holding her baby against her chest, skin to skin. Then the father joined them, kneeling on the ground next to his wife's bed and leaning his head on her shoulder.

As MacInnis worked, a silver Tiffany & Co. bracelet jingled around her wrist, the heart-shaped charms inscribed with the names and birth dates of her sons, ages 8 and 5. "I do this [volunteering] because I have two healthy children," she said, "and I'm grateful for that."
MacInnis prompted the mother to wrap the baby's fingers around her pinky, and with a click the moment was captured. When a nurse came in to hug the parents goodbye, there was another click -- that moment captured, too.

After about 30 minutes with the family, MacInnis requested that the baby be brought to a better-lit room where she could take a few more pictures. This is the last step in all the sessions she does for Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep, and it's often the last time that parents see their newborns. And so it was for this mother: After a moment alone with her daughter, she watched her husband carry their baby away. Waiting in the hallway, MacInnis could hear the woman crying.

MacInnis walked with the father down the quiet hall to another room, where he placed his daughter in a bassinet and unswaddled her. MacInnis asked a nurse to clean the baby's soles, still stained with the ink used to take her footprint. She zoomed in on the father's hand cupping her tiny feet.

By midnight, MacInnis had snapped her final shots. As she packed up her camera and three lenses, the father lingered for a few minutes with his daughter. Then he left the room and returned to his wife. They had both said goodbye.

* * *
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep was born of a tragedy. The organization was founded in Colorado in April 2005 by two women: Cheryl Haggard, the mother of a baby who had recently died, and Sandy Puc', a nationally known photographer whom Haggard and her husband had asked to photograph their son before and after he was taken off life support. While Haggard was in the hospital, another baby died; saddened that, unlike her family, those parents did not go home with photos of their child, Haggard worked with Puc' to form a group of photographers that would serve all families such as theirs.

By July, they had recruited 350 volunteer photographers; in less than two years, they were 2,500 strong. After the organization was featured on NBC's "Today" show this past March, that number exploded to more than 5,000. The network stretches to more than 25 countries, from Israel to South Africa to China, according to the organization.

MacInnis, area co-coordinator with Marirosa Anderson, estimates that the organization, which has no religious affiliation, has a dozen active photographers in the D.C. region. They are most often called to Inova Alexandria, Inova Fairfax Hospital and Reston Hospital Center in Virginia, as well as Holy Cross Hospital and the National Naval Medical Center in Maryland. MacInnis is reaching out to other hospitals so that labor and delivery nurses know about their services.

She is also trying to recruit more photographers; only once did she have to turn away a family because no one was available to go to the hospital, and she wants Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep to be able to cover all requests in the area. Volunteers are required to be professional (though not necessarily full-time) photographers and need to be available to go to hospitals with little notice. MacInnis tries to prepare them for the grief that they will witness, but that's not always easy to do.

Most photographers working with Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep are women, and many talk about their admiration for the mothers they meet. Porto said that she is "floored" by their strength; some of them had known for 20 weeks or more that their babies wouldn't survive.
Les Henig of Garrett Park, the father of four grown children and five foster children, has done five photo sessions. "I see a lot of emotion [in fathers]," said Henig, 60. "In every case, [I see] as much emotion from fathers as mothers."

At 24, Mary Kate McKenna of Silver Spring is the youngest volunteer in the area. Any photographer working with the organization has a "huge responsibility," she said. "There can't be a reshoot. . . . This is [the family's] one chance."

The work "calls on . . . resources that I didn't know I had," said another photographer, Sarah Hodzic, 32, of Arlington. "I always cry."

On the way home from the hospital, MacInnis sometimes listens to rock music to decompress. This summer, she photographed a baby boy who had died in utero several days earlier; weeks later, she was still dreaming about him.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep has a password-protected online forum where photographers can correspond with one another. As many as 500 of the volunteers sign on every day to write about their experiences or to ask for help editing images before sending them to families.

The photographers use editing software to smooth over skin that has begun to break down and touch up abrasions and bruises, but Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep asks them not to alter any deformities. The organization generally doesn't photograph babies whose gestation has lasted less than 25 weeks, but some volunteers make exceptions when they feel comfortable doing so. Almost all photographers opt to give families black-and-white photographs; not only do they have a more timeless quality than color images, but they are also more forgiving of the discoloration or tearing of a premature baby's skin.

"Our goal is to revive comforting images of the babies," MacInnis said. But sometimes, she said, "there's only so much that we can do."

Postmortem pictures such as those offered by Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep have been around practically as long as the camera itself. During the 1800s, dead children were photographed in peaceful poses, as if they were sleeping. Infant mortality might seem like something from the Victorian era -- an antiquated heartbreak -- yet, as Henig said, "it is still with us."

Debbie Schechter, a counselor at Washington's Wendt Center for Loss and Healing and the mother of a boy who died at age 5 of a brain tumor, said parents shouldn't worry that looking at the photos will be emotionally damaging. Part of the grieving process is memorializing the loss, such as through a funeral, and making a place for the loved one. That could be in heaven, she said, but also in a photo album.

The parents who left Inova Alexandria without their daughter are just beginning that process. "We didn't get to see the color of her eyes, or her smile, or feel her grip our finger," the mother wrote in an e-mail two weeks after her baby died. "Our photographs are one of the few connections we have to our daughter. I can't imagine what we would do without them."

Monday, September 29, 2008

A Great Peter Sellers Film

I had always heard that Peter Sellers was a much greater actor than the bumbling detective from the Pink Panther movies, but I wasn't really interested in renting "What's New, Pussycat" or "Dr. Strangelove" or any of a number of other films to find out what else he did during his career. (Not, of course, these are necessarily his best work; they were just the first two that came to mind.)

However, after A. and I recently watched the made-for-HBO movie, "The Life and Death of Peter Sellers," and I became curious about the film "Being There." Based on what I learned from the biopic, the novel by Jerzy Kosinski was Sellers' obsession for the last two decades or so of his life and he was determined that the film would be made with him in the lead role. Ultimately, it was made and Sellers was nominated for an Oscar (which he didn't win, although he did take home the Golden Globe and several other awards).

In my opinion, Sellers should have won. "Being There" is an amazing film, and Sellers is fantastic in the role as Chance the Gardener/Chauncey Gardiner. The story of this simple man who goes through life mimicing what he sees on television and learns from his interaction with other people is both very humorous, very biting, and in some ways very sad. A short explanation of why I think each applies:
  • Very humorous: It's Peter Sellers; of course it's going to be funny! He does a wonderful job with his facial expressions, but it's the delivery of his lines and the instances of very subdued physical comedy that give this film its laughs (along with some of the lines delivered by other characters in the film).

  • Very biting: In watching the way Chance progresses through the story, inadvertently gaining more and more fame simply for talking about his garden and repeating other lines and gestures that he has picked up from others, I was reminded of what's going on in Washington now. Politicians from both sides of the aisle referring constantly to talking points, towing the party line, and sometimes not wanting/trying/able to give a straight answer to a simple question -- all of these seemed reflected in the character of Chance who gave his own version of talking points and the party line (with straight repetition) and giving convoluded answers to simple questions (with his constant analogies dealing with gardening and the seasons). By the end of the film, all of this had come together to such a degree that the presidency was being thrown around (I hate to say too much out of the hope that you will rent this film) -- and the irony of comparing this story with a real/the current campaign is very apparent and very cutting.

  • Very sad: Chance spends so much of his life alone, and even as the film progresses and he is surrounded by more and more people he is still alone. The sadness of not knowing how to read or write; the sadness of not knowing what to do when his employer dies; the sadness of not knowing how to deal with real people who are so different from the people/characters he sees on television; the sadness of not knowing how to recognize when he is being loved or how to show love.
Even though this film was made nearly 30 years ago, it is still really relevant and well worth watching. And I think Sellers gives a brilliant performance. On my scale, five out of five stars -- definitely rent this film. I liked it so much that I'm going to buy it and add it to the family film library.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Thomas Friedman in D.C.

Several years ago, while attending the National Book Festival on the Mall here in Washington, I kept overhearing folks who were scrambling to make the lecture and booksigning that someone name Thomas Friedman was having for his new work, The World is Flat. He certainly had one of the longest lines of the day, and I left with his name tucked in the back of my mind.

A few weeks ago, I saw that Politics and Prose, an independent bookstore here in the Washington area and a district institution for a number of years, was hosting Friedman (in conjunction with New Republic magazine) at the Historic 6th and I Street Synagogue. I have to admit that I was a bit curious -- still thinking of what I had heard on the Mall a few years ago but also recognizing that is a New York Times columnist who is often critical of some things which I support. However, I'm a believer that if you are going to strengthen your own position on things you have to study both sides of the debate, so I ordered some tickets for tonight's event.

The focus of his lecture was on the next big industrial revolution, which he thinks will be the ET age, and which is covered in his newest book, Hot, Flat, and Crowded: Why We Need a Green Revolution--and How It Can Renew America. Just as the last big revolution focused on IT systems and development, the next one will focus on the development of environmental technology -- and the country that is able to capitalize on new environmental technology first will be the next global leader. He also talked at some length on why it is important to the growth of democracy (aside from the future of our energy needs) that what he terms "petrodictatorships" need to be brought to an end.

I think that after seeing how Al Gore and his environmental crusade and PowerPoint presentation was always being thrust in front of us, I was a bit concerned about how in-your-face Friedman would be with his take on things. Surprisingly -- and pleasantly -- what the audience got was a very calm, quiet (sometimes too quiet; I heard many folks sitting near me during the course of the evening complain that they couldn't hear him) and often humorous explanation of what he sees happening and what he thinks we still need to do. Just a few points of what he brought up (and I only wish that I had been taking notes; guess I'll be reading the book now!!):
  • When he was born in 1953, there were about 3.6 billion people on the planet; by the time we get to the year 2053, there will be over 9 billion people on the planet. More people would have been added to the population over the course of his lifetime than were alive when he was born.

  • Currently, there are 1.6 billion on the planet who are not on the power grid at all -- meaning that there are 1.6 billion people who will never have access to any sort of meaningful education the tremendous amounts of information that make up 99 percent of what we know, and who will never have the tools to try and discover the one percent of things remaining to be discovered.

  • The IT revolution was easy; the folks who were creating Google and Apple and the Internet were coming up with something new and didn't have anything to try and overcome. One of the biggest challenges of the ET revolution will be trying to come up with something new without relying on the dirty, environmentally-unfriendly sources already in place.

  • Throughout history, as oil prices fell democracy took hold. As an example, he used the year 1991 -- oil was at $18 a barrel, and the Soviet Union fell. He has developed an entire graph of two inverse lines, which show a rise in the growth of free societies and democratic governments as the price of oil falls. As Friedman said (somewhat paraphrased her), "What was the first country in the Middle East to disccover oil? Bahrain. What was the first country in the Middle East to run out of oil? Bahrain? What was the first country in the Middle East to have democratic elections? Bahrain. What was the first country in the Middle East to have a free and open society? Bahrain."

  • One bit of humor: a study showed that the average golfer walks 922 miles per year. The average golfer also drinks 22 gallons of liquor per year. "That means the average golfer gets 41 miles to the gallon."
There was a great deal more he said and which I look forward to studying at greater length in his book. In fact, his 40 minute talk extended to nearly an hour and twenty minutes, and I could have listened to much more. He has definitely given me a great deal to think about and has increased my interest in learning more about the green revolution that is upon us and what my family and I can do to take part. If you see that Friedman is going to be in your area, I would highly recommend you go to listen to him -- it will certainly be memorable.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Tonight: No Politics, No Religion, No Family

Just a great Henry Mancini song performed by Michael Buble!! One of my favorites, from one of my favorite movies: "The Pink Panther." And as a nice contrast, the version with Fran Jeffries from the film...

Friday, September 12, 2008

Playing with Your Life

Sitting at work today, I found myself glued to the television coverage of Hurricane Ike's impending landfall in Texas. Aside from being concerned for our friends and family who still live in that area -- and along the Gulf Coast -- I found myself praying for the tens of thousands of folks who are scrambling to get out of the storms way, and particularly for the 22 sailors trapped on a freighter in the Gulf of Mexico who cannot get out of Ike's way and who are going to have to ride it out. You know things are rough when the Coast Guard can't even get to the ship to rescue them; they are very much in God's hands now, as is every person threatened by this monster.

I've also been bewildered by the folks who aren't heeding the call to leave; in fact, I saw a report about a crowd of folks who have gone to a bar on Galveston Island there they intend to have an extended hurricane party and ride out the storm. Why put yourself at unnecessary risk?? Why put your families (parents, siblings, etc. - I would certainly hope none of these lunatics have children) in a situation where they spend the next days wondering if you survived?

What is enough for these folks? Apparently, it wasn't enough that the governor and state emergency management officials told them to leave. It wasn't enough that FEMA and the hurricane center are saying this storm could rival Katrina and even the 1900 storm that killed 8,000 people in Texas. And it certainly wasn't a big enough hint when folks who are staying behind are advised to write their Social Security numbers on their arms.

I have absolutely no understanding of why they're doing this. They've got my prayers, though -- and my hope that they live through this so that they can wash those numbers off their arms themselves rather than having someone who finds them later do it for them...

Saturday, September 06, 2008

If Congress is Out of Session, Then This Must Be a REAL Hurricane

I always like to try and reassure myself that when we moved back to the D.C. area from Alabama, we were finally able to escape the annual threat of tropical storms and hurricanes (overlooking, of course, the hurricane that struck Washington in 2003, the year we moved back). Hanna had second thoughts, and in the past few hours she finished pounding our area with rain and heavy wind. Now, it's just wind.

As the picture shows, the damage to the yard was minimal; just a few limbs down and a large bush in the backyard crushed. The most damage came from water coming up under the foundation of our house into our basement rec room along two walls. It's not much fun spending Saturday afternoon using a steam cleaner to pull water out of carpet.

Now, of course, we turn our attention to Ike -- already a Category 4, and tentatively projected to head once again near Cuba and into the Gulf of Mexico. We're already praying for our friends throughout that area and hoping that this one decides to start spinning aimlessly in the Atlantic...

Friday, September 05, 2008

Continued Thoughts on Media and Candidates

I’d like to follow up a bit on my post from the other day regarding the media and the Palin family and try and address some of the points raised in comments left by folks who are kind enough to read my blog.

I certainly agree that when someone takes on the challenge of running for public office, they and their entire family are going to be opened up to scrutiny – and that’s something that they should be prepared for and expect at the outset. The point I was trying to make in my post, however, was more a criticism of the media and their approach to this situation. I shouldn’t be surprised about it, and I’m not at all; by and large, today’s media is focused solely on ratings and the financial benefits reaped from their sponsors. However, I'm in many respects still an idealistic dreamer in lnoging for the days when they would focus on the candidates and the issues, not the candidates and their families. I haven’t one time heard any report about Governor Palin herself complaining about the coverage of her daughter’s pregnancy – all the complaints are coming from pundits and other media outlets, the same sorts of groups who complained about the coverage of Obama and Reverend Wright and the treatment of Hillary Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

Scrutiny of a candidate and his/her background is one thing; outright criticism and – in the case of the Daily Kos website, which out-and-out lied when stating that little five-month-old Trig Palin wasn’t even the son of the Governor, but rather of the daughter who is now pregnant – borderline slander is inexcusable. Gone are the days, apparently, where media coverage was driven by actual news and not by the ravings of folks who post on extreme, radical websites (left-wing and right-wing alike).

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

As a Parent, Not a Voter...

I’ve wanted to post something for a few days now regarding the selection by John McCain of Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the November election, but decided that I would wait so that I – like much of America, it seems – could learn more about her. To this point, what I’ve learned is very encouraging; she seems to have many of the core conservative positions that are important to me.

However, I can’t even get into really learning about her until I get past my anger at the way she’s been treated by (gasp!) the media. I’ve been around politics long enough to know that there’s a bias in media – some networks lean one way, some lean another. What infuriates me (but doesn’t necessarily surprise me, sadly) is the way the way that reporting on candidates has turned into advocating for candidates (or in the case of Palin, smearing them and their families). To his credit, Obama came out early on and said that children and families of candidates should be left out of the debate, and that if he were to find that anyone on his staff were contributing to this sort of activity he would fire that person. But does he believe that enough to call on others to stop these sorts of attacks?

Apparently not. I’m no great fan of Hillary Clinton, but Democrats and the media went after her hard during the primaries because she’s a woman. It wasn’t enough to attack her on differences of opinion on the war in Iraq or healthcare or any of a number of other issues; they had to turn it into a man-versus-woman showdown. Now, they’re doing the same thing again, but the media is doing much of the dirty work (and I haven’t seen any repeat calls from Obama to lay off). Perfect example: US magazine covers for Obama and Palin; the cover for Obama from a few weeks ago had a great photo of him with his wife and the title, “Why He Loves Her” – a very nice sentiment indeed. This week, the cover shows Governor Palin holding her newborn son Trig, with a caption reading, “Babies, Lies, and Scandal.” No obvious bias there!!

There are many folks who are saying that Palin’s daughter should be an issue in this campaign because as an anti-sex education, pro-abstinence advocate the Governor is seeing first-hand how this position is playing out in her own family. As a parent (and as a child who caused my parents more than their share of grief over the years, I’m sure), my goal is to make sure my children are taught the best of everything that A. and I know and trust that they will grow up making good choices in their lives. If for whatever reason they don’t, I don’t feel that would be a reflection on us – we can only give them the tools to use in their lives and hope and pray that they use them correctly. Had we done nothing to help them along and they get in trouble, then certainly we can be pointed to as parents who didn’t do a good enough job. As much as any parent would love to be able to hold their child’s hand throughout their entire life, it’s not possible; mistakes will be made, and we have to help them as much as possible when working through the consequences. But to point to someone like Governor Palin – a woman who kept her own newborn child despite knowing full well he would be battling severe birth defects, and whose daughter is keeping her own child with the full support and love of her family behind her – and say that this is a reflection on her views is ludicrous.

The rationale behind McCain’s selection of Palin is not for me to question; no one from his campaign called for my input, and I have to trust that whether for shrewd political reasons or simply to attract the support of a particular demographic his decision is a correct one. We can question the experience of the candidates, their readiness to be president, and their views on issues from now until election day and I’ll be fine with that. But for the mainstream media to do what they’re doing is below the belt and beneath what used to be the dignity of a very dignified profession. If they want to editorialize or attack, then they should get out of the newsroom and either run for office and become an analyst.