Words cannot describe the magnitude of pain felt by parents who have lost a child. I will not pretend to know what it is like to experience it. My own baby, Jacob, was walking that line in a NICU 24 years ago, but he survived.
Asher Charles was born on January 28, 2015. He was born prematurely at 31 weeks gestation. His mother has given me permission to tell this story.
His mother, Marti, is a new nurse in the NICU where I work. It’s a big unit so I did not get to know her before she had Asher, nor did I get the privilege of taking care of him while he was in our NICU. But I did get the honor of painting him after he passed, and since then, getting to know Marti.
Marti is a girl whom I have a heart for. She, like me, had a baby in the NICU before she was ever a nurse. She, like me, was so inspired by the NICU nurses who pulled her baby (Landon, now 4 years old) through, that she went back to nursing school and changed careers. She, like me, struggled in school with our PTSD and anxiety, but was determined to push through so we could “give back.” Like soldiers who finish a tour of duty in war but keep re-enlisting, both of us found our way back to the NICU on the other side, as a RN. Coming into it, both of us struggled with “fitting in”, of overcoming our haunting NICU memories, with learning to deal with the stress of that environment, and we stuck it out anyway. We both have teetered between “I love my job” and “what have I done to my life?”
But that is where our similarities end. Her second child came into the world when she was fresh off of orientation in our NICU, and she was thrust back into her previous role of NICU mom.
At 31 weeks, Asher’s odds of pulling through were mostly in his favor. But survival statistics provide no solace if your baby gets the raw deal. Sweet Asher was overcome by NEC, which is a complication that some preemies get where part or all of the intestinal tract dies. He passed away in his loving parents’ arms on February 13, 2015.
|Asher's last day. Courtesy of NILMDTS|
Karrie and Susan, close coworker friends of Marti’s, took up a collection and commissioned a portrait by me. This reference photo was taken by a volunteer photographer from a non-for-profit company called Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (NILMDTS). Marti had told Susan that this was her favorite one. The nurses wanted to present the artwork to Marti as a gift at a memorial tile blessing ceremony. NILMDTS kindly granted me permission to use the image to create a portrait.
I decided to take the black and white photo and turn it into a color portrait. What was I thinking? I had never done that before! All they had originally asked for was a drawing, nothing too hard. But I tend to bite off more than I can chew. I’m not kidding when I tell you that I prayed every single time I went into the studio to work on that portrait, “God, please guide my hand and help me create something that Marti and her family will love. They deserve it. Help me to shut off the chatter in my brain and really listen to Your guidance, because this painting has got to be good. For their sake, don’t let me crank out a turkey.”
Taking a black and white reference photo and ascribing color to it was actually very liberating. It freed me to imagine the color of the background, and the color of the light sources around them. I was able to communicate, with reds, oranges, and yellows, the warm energy and love that family can give to and draw from each other. I could then contrast this with the cold harshness of the world outside of their unity by portraying it with blue. As the warm light washes over Asher, he becomes his own source of light, illuminating his father’s face with gold. I also deliberately broke the rule of “warm light/cool shadow and cool light/warm shadow” by painting the shadows that Asher casts on his mother’s chest as more like pools of orange heat, which represents the connection that they shared when skin-to-skin.
I would not have taken these liberties with color if I had followed a color photograph. I would have tried so hard to reproduce the moment captured, that I would have adhered too closely to the colors in the photo. I think the painting is better this way. I was able to enjoy adding my own interpretation, which took me one step closer to creating an artwork, and not just a painting.
I barely got the painting done in time. My husband Jeff, on short order, made a lovely custom frame out of oak with a mahogany stain. I framed the wet painting and took it to the ceremony. The attendees were Marti and her husband Zac, and their son Landon, their families and closest friends, as well as many staff from our NICU. After the chaplain blessed the tile with holy water and gave a speech, Karrie took the floor. She announced that the NICU staff had commissioned a portrait, and she pulled the drape off the portrait. Marti clung to her husband’s arm and exclaimed, “Our baby!!” Both of them cried.
|Marti and Karrie|
Chaplain Brenda decided right then to bless the portrait as well, with the holy water, her fingers tracing a small cross right above the image of Asher’s head. I was thankful to God for this blessing by a chaplain, and I was thankful she didn’t accidentally touch the wet paint.
Marti tearfully spoke to the small crowd, “Thank you all for coming and for all the support,” and then to the NICU staff, “Thank you for all that you did for Asher…for all that you tried to do…thank you so much.”
Marti eventually came up to the painting, and she kept hovering her hand over Asher’s head, saying, “I want to touch it so badly!” She did this more than once. She knew the paint was still wet though, so she exercised great restraint. She talked about some of her most precious memories of Asher was from their time in skin-to-skin holding, and of touching his soft wispy hair.
|Sweet family of four... Zac, Landon, and Marti, and Asher (in spirit)|
She tells me she keeps the painting safe in Asher’s room (away from the flying dust of their current home improvement projects), patiently waiting for the paint to dry. She goes in there several times a day to look at it. Initially, sometimes it was several times an hour. She says she wants to “pull him right out of the painting.” Once construction stops at their house, it will be displayed in their living room.
The other day she brought it to work so I could borrow it back, because I needed to sign it and, if dry enough, possibly varnish it. She brought it in the box, and at the end of the workday, would not let me carry it to my car because I had a drink in my hand. That makes me smile. She walked me to my car and I had her place it in my trunk. She did, but made me promise that the painting would be safe in there. We talked about Asher for a while, and she cried. My heart goes out to her. It was hard for her to let me drive off with the painting. As soon as I got home, I sent her a large jpg file of the painting so she could put it on her computer as wallpaper. And when I brought it back to her, in its box and wrapped in plastic, she could not resist opening it to make sure it was still okay. The importance of this picture to Marti inspired the title of this blog post.
|"Loving Asher" 10 x 14" Oil on linen panel|
This courageous woman, Marti, came back to our battlefield back in April. Emotionally wounded and missing her Asher, she comes in and pours her heart into her work by supporting parents, vigilantly assessing and caring for the babies, and readily and without hesitation puts scrawny little preemies on their mother’s chest for skin-to-skin holding so they can draw strength and warmth from each other. Because Marti knows, on a level deeper than most nurses can know, just how golden that cuddle time is.